“A Eulogy for #Occupy” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 18)

When I used to live in D.C., I often biked to work. On my way there, I would pass the tent city that cropped up at “Freedom Plaza” at the end of 2011, part of the spreading “Occupy” and “99%” protest movement. The colder it got, the more I admired their determination to stay and continue their protest. But I always kept riding by; I never stopped and talked to the people there. I never took the time to find out what it was all about.

A broken window with a note attached that reads "We are better than this"

Photo by Quinn Norton for Wired

Like many progressives, I found myself supportive of the Occupy protests, sympathetic to the their focus on income inequality and their critique of corporate influence over government and politics. But I never really understood the camps or the “general assembly” shouting. I didn’t really know what they wanted to achieve.

So Quinn Norton’s “A Eulogy for #Occupy” for Wired was a fascinating read. Norton spent a year “embedded” with the Occupy movement, living in their camps and occupied parks, and witnessed up close the rise and fall of the movement.

She is nostalgic about the community feeling that blossomed at many camps, rails against the brutality of police who assaulted protesters and ripped away the encampments, and describes the diversity of people who took part in the movement. And she helps convey why it just wasn’t about politics or debt or unemployment:

From the beginning there were two main parts to Occupy. There was the cause of economic justice — the idea that resources shouldn’t be distributed so unevenly. This idea, in its myriad forms, drove marches and injected the rhetoric of the “99 percent” into the political dialogue. This was what the press often thought Occupy was all about.

Less understood was the other part of Occupy — the part that was about the need for community. Occupiers came to the camps to care for others as much as they came to be cared for. People had to find a way to matter to each other in ways that weren’t mediated by the social services, the justice system, the institutions we stick each other into.

It was this need to serve each other, not any political message, that stocked the kitchens and filled the comfort barrels. It was that which kept volunteers up for days, taking care of drug addicts and neurotic students and old men with failing bodies.

Norton’s story is obviously from the perspective of a participant in the movement, but she doesn’t avoid some of the ugly elements that cropped up. She describes the breakdown of many occupy sites:

What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.

By the time I returned to NY from visiting the camp in DC, exhausted with the pain of six evictions, the NYC GA was a place where women were threatened with beatings, and street kids with calls to the police. All the reasonable people had gotten the fuck out. It had become a gladiator pit no one enjoyed watching. Even Weev, the famous internet troll, didn’t last through the nastiness of the GA I took him to. He left while I wasn’t looking, without saying goodbye. We never spoke about it. I didn’t blame him, and I didn’t have to ask why. It was the tiny, brutal, and bitter politics of failed people.

The story itself is a jumble of reflections, ideas, interviews, and asides from her year spent with the movement. It jumps around and doesn’t have the cleanest narrative structure. But it is heartfelt and honest, and reveals an insider’s viewpoint on something few of us really understood. I admire the dedication and commitment it took for her to live in this movement for a year and tell its stories.

Norton’s writing is eloquent and beautiful, but also honest and unsparing. Much like the movement, her article is a mix of idealism, cynicism, frustration, and hope.

Read “A Eulogy for #Occupy →

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