Occupying the “99%”: Occupying History

Posted on November 29th, 2011 by Vina Tran

Cross posted from Jenny M. James’ blog, Capacious Ground from November 10, 2011.  James is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. Her academic interests include twentieth-century North American literature, feminist and queer theory, memory studies, and American culture.


On November 15th I woke up to this image on the front homepage of the New York Times, the Huffington Post and other media outlets. What had been the spectacle, the performance, the vitality of occupying the space of Zuccotti Park had been cleaned, cleansed, cleared of the traces of a dynamic collective life. This wiping clean appeared to me such an egregious representation of the immanent, violent forces of disciplinary power ready to be exerted at any moment. This photo seems to hold a certain affective power and somehow touched me more than the unfortunately more familiar photographs of literal violence against men and women taken on the early morning of the 15th when the NYPD decided to sweep the streets. On its most basic level, Occupy Wall Street is about the maintenance, survival, and celebration of the public sphere, and the spaces it inhabits.

This is a photograph of history that can only be read, or registered as history, within the context of those other photographs of violence but also of uplift, protest, disorder, joy. And it symbolizes to me the lightening quick capacity for history to be both made and erased. This problem of capturing and documenting history as it happens is very present to me as I finish my dissertation on the 1960s – an era now resonating today, the details of which we have for decades afterward misconceived, misremembered and even forgotten. To look at our recent past of September 17th to November 17th, 2011, to think of the quick almost immeasurable moments of change that take place overnight in Occupy’s message, constituency, regional, national and international reach is to take seriously how history is in the doing which can be confusing, disorderly and lacking a “clear message.” To speak of being part of the 99%, to call for an occupation of land and space is also to be aware of our own occupation of history, and the responsibility that this brings.

I started this post a while ago, trying to work through all my mixed and amorphous thoughts about what was and is the Occupy movement. This is how I began:

“A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend and fellow doctoral student about the Occupy Wall Street movement and the rising socio-cultural anxiety over the devaluing of what George Lipsitz calls “the possessive investment in whiteness.” For the first month or so of the Occupy movement, its public face was not surprisingly single, white, male and under 45 years of age. The default “subject” who chose to “occupy” public space was the familiar figure of a recognizable American norm. As Jon Stewart so aptly captured in an opening bit for the Daily Show on October 5th, the rhetoric of the weakening certainty of the [White] American Dream, the lack of viable economic opportunities, and the drama of what it means for a white man to not be able to find work, shows up both in the language of the Occupiers as well as the Tea Party movement communiques. His two dueling spokesmen for the polarized parties are both imagined as white men wearing patriotic hats. However, unlike the tri-corner hat of 1776 that Tea Party folks like to don, Stewart finds a new costume in Zuccotti Park – the Union Army Civil War cap. The hilarity of this segment literally brought tears to my eyes, but per usual Stewart isn’t just kidding – he evinces an important philosophical and rhetorical phenomenon: the competing American mythologies that still manifest within our current political split. The Tea Party grasps onto the libertarian, individualist model of freedom and American citizenship symbolized by the Revolutionary War; the Occupiers instead invoke rhetoric of union and national solidarity that has its roots in the fight against confederacy.”

My concern from the beginning of this movement was the capacity for the organizers to invoke a greater diversity in their rhetoric and constituency. The strength of my critique lasted for about a month. By the one month anniversary on October 17th, the movement had already incorporated the iconic and symbolic profile of Angela Davis on their poster for the “Occupy Party” that took place at Times Square.

By October 28th, less than two weeks after this poster was distributed across the internet, Angela Davis publicly joined the movement and spoke at Occupy Philadelphia. Her words highlight our present movement’s relationship to the ones that came before:

“The Unity of the 99% must be a complex unity. Movements in the past have primarily appealed to specific communities, whether workers, students, Black communities, Latino communities, women, LGBT communities, indigenous people. Or these movements have been organized around specific issues, like the environment, food, water, war, the prison industrial complex.” Speaking of her own work fighting the prison industrial complex, she goes on to list the allied goals of “justice, creativity, equality, freedom!” Finally she quotes Audre Lorde: “differences must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic” (from the Master’s Tools essay). If this isn’t a fabulous, creative making real on the claims of feminist intersectional politics, I’m not sure what is. Clearly Davis’ and Lorde’s words are hard to beat. This passage critically demonstrates how previous qua Sixties social movements were organized either around specific communities or specific issues. The Occupy Wall Street movement is doing something quite different by making claims and attempting to account for such a large and capacious collection of peoples and causes. Perhaps this might seem to lack a “message,” but it also powerfully demands us to be the creative participants that can interpret the movement and its rhetoric for ourselves, and make it our own – a very different conception of ideology than the communiques of 1968.

You can find more of this speech on youtube, where you will ironically also see in the background a poster for Ready.gov (see post from October 7th). Thanks to the The Feminist Wire for alerting me to this video in the first place.

What might happen tomorrow, on the two month anniversary of the movement, we can only guess. But I am hopeful tonight, and its a different feeling of hope than the perhaps too audacious hopefulness I felt on Obama’s election night.

(P.S. Check out the interesting collection of photos that come up on Google search when I typed in “Black Nationalist Organization 1960s protest arrest.” At least three of these photos are from the Occupy movement).

(Photo credits @NYTimes)


  1. More thoughts on OWS – new blog post from doctoral candidate Jenny M. James on "Occupying the "99%": Occupying History http://t.co/Wyptti5o

  2. Gender & Sexuality Law Blog » Blog Archive » Occupying the “99 …: … American Dream, the lack of viable econo… http://t.co/5JKZ3mNZ

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