A look back at Occupy Oakland

In 2011, I lived in Oakland and took part in many of the Occupy Oakland protests, meetings, and events. The pinnacle of the experience was when the teachers’ union of the public school district endorsed teacher participation in a city-wide general strike. It was the first city-wide general strike since 1946. Instead of teaching in our usual classrooms, many of us took a personal day off while inviting our students to join us at Frank Ogawa Plaza for rallies and marches, which were scheduled throughout the day. At the time, I ran a green jobs vocational training program at one of the toughest schools in the city. Our work included small-scale agriculture projects at community gardens, so many of my students decided to have a farmer’s market at the occupied plaza. In the afternoon over 20,000 (some estimated up to 70,000) marched to the Oakland Port, one of the largest shippin95g ports in the country and shut it down.

The day of the General Strike could well be viewed as emblematic of what transpired during the Occupy Oakland movement as a whole. The vast majority of activities, sit-ins, and protests were peaceful, but a handful of incidents of vandalism and violence cast long shadows over the positive actions. On a number of occasions, night would fall and ‘fringe’ groups would destroy private property and confrontations with police would intensify, along with police brutality. Eventually these incidents were used as an excuse for coordinated police raids to forcibly remove Occupiers from Ogawa Plaza and other occupied spaces. The Occupy Oakland post-mortem conversations in the media and among many Oakland residents sought explanations for the ‘failure’ of the overall movement due to its lack of leadership and absence of a concrete agenda (an analytical interpretation contested at length in Van De Sande, 2013).

12My memory of the entire experience of participation was quite different; I experienced it as an electric spiritual awakening and heightened feeling of connectedness, especially when participating in demonstrations and debates. My experience is in stark contrast to the sweeping narrative of failure. At some subconscious level, I think I accepted this reductionist explanation as logical, mainly because none other was offered. At the time, the only other frame of reference for me was the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was true, there was no Martin Luther King of the Occupy movement who had emerged to negotiate with the city or state. It was true Occupy did not have a set agenda or list of demands. Maybe that is why we haven’t seen a marked change in the capitalist status quo.

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This course has helped me reconsider what change occurred during my exposure to the collective power I witnessed during Occupy and why this experience is vital in its own right. They took me ages to find, but I dug through my archives and found some of the photos I took from Oakland’s General Strike. Looking through them for the first time in at least five years still gives me goosebumps and causes tears of joy to well up in my eyes. I am swept up with the same sense of rebellion and emancipatory emotion I felt then. Every sign still rings true, and in speaking to the broad array of ills of capitalism they realized an alternative society in the past moment when the photos were taken as well as in the present moment in which I view the photos. Occupy Oakland lives on.

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Van De Sande, M. (2013) ‘The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square – an alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions’, Res Republica, 19, pp.223‒229.

 

 

The Unruliness of Logging Off

I’m doing what I set out to avoid at the beginning of the term, posting blogs last minute. Most of this is poor time management, guilty; but a small part is that, since the US election in November 2016, I’ve purposefully tried to spend less time online. I wish the impetus for this was personal betterment or testing my will power but I wouldn’t call my move principled, as much as a guttural, defensive reaction. The true impetus to my fundamentally reconsidering 15 years of habitual behavior can be summed up in one word: fear. This blog is not meant to grandstand against online life or provide a prescription for how others should proceed. It is rather a cautionary exploration of what I view as a co-option by the powerful of two spaces also home to unruliness: social media platforms and our private realms.

I quit Facebook – sort of – at the beginning of the year. My account is still active – partially because I couldn’t (and still can’t) figure out how to completely disentangle myself from the company (a telling example: even if I delete my account, Facebook still owns and compiles information about me generated by other users). It is this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that is so terrifying to me and has led me to reconsider how to wrest back a bit more control in my private realm. Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, two other social media and communication tools that I rely on. Having the lived in four countries on three continents in the last couple years, WhatsApp is my primary communication tool. I was gutted when Facebook bought it. As an avid photographer (even trained back in the day to use analog cameras!), I have always enjoyed the simplicity of Instagram, as well as its utility for maintaining social connections with friends scattered around the world. But there is a difference in the content I feed these two, versus the much longer, more uninhibited legacy in my Facebook footprint.

Facebook and I came of age at the same time. When I joined in 2004, the year ‘The Facebook’ launched, it was a completely closed online community – elitist in fact. Invitations to join were initially given to private, high ranking US universities. At the time, no one could have predicted it would become the preferred communication platform for many parents and grandparents across the globe less than ten years later. For me then the novelty was intoxicating, it was an outlet, a creative space,  and an escape. In reflecting on Facebook since the election, it is hard to imagine ever feeling this way about Facebook and has made me come to internalize the lesson that what a piece of technology starts out to be and what it ultimately becomes are unknowable. Facebook and its ilk, with their corporate profit models, are no longer what their startup visions may have professed (though I am unsure what Facebook’s original ‘vision’ really was, if it had one). These days, in the social media space especially, it’s difficult to imagine any technology launching with a genuine commitment to lofty ideals like altruism ahead of profit.

Discussions in class and content in our readings explored ways in which technology has been used as a disruptive means for unruly social action, as well as the cyclical co-option of tools used in unruly politics to reassert or strengthen the powerful status quo. In global politics, one might contrast how social media was credited with playing an influential role in social movement organization in Tahrir Square in 2011, whereas in the 2016 US election it was co-opted and used for something decidedly more perverse (more on this later).

In the private realm-a place where many begin to explore their unruly sides- we can see this co-option in the commodification of our privacy. In the early days of Facebook, data privacy was considered either a given, or for many (me included) it wasn’t really considered at all. Free meant free services, or so it seemed. In reality, the data users generate – including your photos – on a given platform are owned by that company and will be used for whatever purposes the company chooses. It is a new societal norm that ‘data is the new oil.’ Our privacy is a lucrative commodity, to be bought and sold, and protected only by those who can afford it. Often the software is not the product being traded; we, the users, are the product who generate billions in profits for a handful of supra-national corporate juggernauts.

In the US at least, this commodification of privacy is perfectly legal, as the judicial system favors corporate rights to commerce above individual rights to privacy. In Europe, privacy seems to matter a bit more. For example, the EU recently fined Facebook for lying about its data unification capabilities when it acquired Whatsapp. What this means, in plain English, is that Facebook has matched all information in your Facebook account to everything in your WhatsApp account. Bringing Instagram into the equation, one company now knows almost every step I’ve taken and a lot of conversations I’ve had for the past 15 years of my life. They are able to connect all these pieces of information into a digital dossier, which they are then allowed to sell to the highest bidder. When companies tell you they are only selling your ‘anonymized’ information to ‘advertisers’ to improve the ads you see, question this deeply.

One entity that Facebook considers an advertiser is Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, in the words of a former employee, is ‘just a psychological warfare firm’ conducting ‘psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change… We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.’ Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL was good, so good that it was bought by right-wing, white nationalist billionaires, and renamed Cambridge Analytica, and utilized to great effect in support of the Leave and Trump campaigns in the UK and US respectively. Here’s a comprehensive, shockingly transparent overview of the firm’s strategies in ‘micro-targeting…levers of persuasion’: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAW1kTLuAIs).

CA Psychographic messaging
In this photo, the founder of Cambridge Analytica is demonstrating how the company targets political messaging to Facebook users based on their digital identity. For the full presentation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R77mGyi-Iu4

 

Unlike in 2004, I am conscious now that how I interact on any given platform may have unintended consequences, and I am slowly learning to calibrate my interactions with platforms in light of this. I log on to Facebook as sparingly as possible. I no longer fall asleep reading from a feed on my phone. I make more phone calls and handwrite letters. The greatest surprise in all of this is that it hasn’t been that difficult. I don’t wrestle with the temptation to log on anymore. In fact, I almost dread it. The corporate goal is to keep us online and addicted to these platforms, so once I am on, like everyone else, it is hard to get off. All of these incremental actions bear a sense unruliness because, in questioning the benefits of online engagement, contesting the profit models which drive them, and going to extra lengths to protect my privacy I wrest back a bit of agency. It is perhaps a weapon of the weak (Scott, 1985). I miss out on events and am, without a doubt, less informed about my loved ones and their lives. But I also feel more empowered and I treasure my private realm in a way I didn’t before.

I would encourage all of us to consider how central these platforms are to our lives. How, like cyborgs (Haraway, 1985), we are in fact connected to the platforms so that they’ve become extensions of ourselves. They are not just a conduit to connect to others. How might our interactions be mined, even weaponized, such as is the case with Cambridge Analytica? And how might we be able to exercise a form of unruly politics by logging off, taking back our time and our mental energy to learn and create, and not just to consume and be consumed?


References

Haraway, D. (1985), ‘A cyborg manifesto: science, technology and socialist- feminism in the late Twentieth Century’ in Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge, pp. 149-181. Available at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Haraway-CyborgManifesto.html

Scott, J.C., (1985) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press.

Unruly Sentiments in Political Satire

Throughout this term, one of the ways I’ve been tapping into a sense of unruliness has been through the consumption of political satire. In the US, the influence of news parodies like The Onion, sketch comedy acts, and ‘infoentertainment’ shows like The Daily Show is becoming so pronounced that a highly regarded monthly political magazine recently devoted its feature article to Saturday Night Live and the ability of one of its famous comedians to rile up President Donald Trump.

Baldwin Trump

I have always enjoyed political satire and though I still do, one of the hardest lessons I and many others have learned from Trump’s election is that turning our collective back on those being mocked, disdaining and alienating people on the opposite side of the cavernous US political divide, contributed to getting him elected in the first place. If there is hope for the US to rise from what (I hope) is political rock bottom, if there is hope for the US electorate to reject a Trump-like scourge in the future, we’ll need to reckon with the fact that the denigration of the ‘other’ only confirms and entrenches implicit biases. Particularly useful on this point, a consortium of academic institutes that make up the Perception Institute have studied the psychological and social mechanisms of implicit bias and racial anxiety and put together this report (pdf available: Science-of-Equality)

As a result of the 2016 US election, the partisan lampooning of ‘the other’ often now leaves me feeling uncomfortable because of its condescension, or as some call it the  ‘smug liberal problem’. In light of Trump, it has stopped being funny to me, though conservative politicians in the US leave no fewer opportunities to get lampooned. There is however one example of political satire which I’ve found to be most emotionally satisfying, and where I believe I’d like to derive energy and life-force for the unruliness of my personal politics.

The show is called VEEP, and, I think, its ability to unearth an unruly emotional resonance is due to its ridicule translating across the aisle. Its funniest moments are when the fictionalized Vice-President of the US and staff operate in a moral vacuum that holds anything and everyone, particularly the electorate which they are supposed to serve and the democratic values they are supposed to uphold and defend, in complete contempt. Their motivations instead center on one thing: amassing more power to get ahead in the political game. It could be depressing and embolden my cynicism, as Akshay Khanna discusses in ‘Seeing Citizen Action through an “Unruly” Lens’, but instead I find this type of satire deeply satisfying because you get the sense that this is how elected politicians feel about us- the ‘real people’ who elect them and that this could be a more accurate portrayal of how US politics operate than say, the nightly news.Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 12.35.19 PM

Arguably, because many of the shows I like – The Daily Show, John Oliver, VEEP, are on broadcast television – they don’t fall within shadows or margins of unruliness.  Nor is this type of political satire unique to this moment in history, to the culture or to the country. In these respects, the political satire I’m discussing is quite ‘ruly.’ So I’ve been asking myself, what is it about engaging with these comedic bits that make it feel so unruly?

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First, I’d describe it as seeking out comfort in comedians saying things no one dares to say, though these statements are utterly and unarguably true yet completely counter to the hegemonic public narrative.

American policy
#Truth

And second, there is something about the potential for these jokes to have a much broader application than, in this case, the US political system. VEEP’s creator, Armando Iannucci, is British, and  first aired ‘In the Thick of it’ on BBC- a fictionalized behind the scenes look at the lives of foulmouthed British MPs. The broader satirical application steers the viewer away from singling out or relishing in partisan arguments or even country specifics, instead focusing on satirizing the western democratic system as a whole. And it works oh so perfectly applied to both British and US self-congratulatory western democracies. Both shows put ‘democracy’ under a magnifying glass to expose the multitude of day-to-day bureaucratic practices that scorn constituents and the egalitarianism that allegedly underpins these democracies.

different species
Scene from ‘In the Thick of It’  (I uploaded this clip to YouTube but it was promptly taken down due to copyright infringement)

Baym and Jones argue that political satire ‘inhabits a familiar landscape, but through ridicule, offers new ways of seeing the form of that landscape and the language that inhabits it’ (2012: 12). This is a particularly resonant argument for me in relation to VEEP, as one of the elements I enjoy so much is its obscene use of profanity. As Ashkay Khanna mentions, ‘Politics here has a grammar, and a procedure that is first and foremost defined by those in power’ (2012: 165). The language of satire then can be interpreted literally, as one would never hear politicians speak the way they do on the show (this dreadful caveat withstanding). Language here can also be interpreted figuratively, where the show’s discourse uses a different ‘grammar and a procedure’ – which are not defined by the powerful – to portray these politicians as unsophisticated and political systems as morally bankrupt. This allows us to consider that perhaps it is the elites – though they position themselves above the vulgarities of the masses – who are the simplest, smuttiest and least qualified to lead of us all.

To me this generates an internal emotional orientation toward an unruly rejection of the status quo. Researchers Hoong and Lee conducted online experiments which demonstrated that as people engage with political satire, negative emotions that arise are a conduit for deeper democratic dialogue. Though their research focuses on negative emotions, in my personal experience, I am struck with relief accompanied by possibility and a burgeoning solidarity – a sense that if these jokes made it onto a nationally televised show, it is clear that I am far from alone in my dismay over the absurdities that encompass these political systems and the utter hypocrisy in evangelizing them as global beacons for democracy. Authors Baym and Jones argue: ‘At its sharpest, however, parody is an increasingly significant form of cultural and political resistance. The power of parody lies in its ability to turn hegemonic discourses upon themselves’ (2012: 12).

 


References:

Baym G. & Jones, J.P (2012) ‘News Parody in Global Perspective: Politics, Power, and Resistance’ in Popular Communication 10 (1-2), pp. 2-13.

Khanna, A. (2012) ‘Seeing citizen action through an unruly lens’ in Development, 55(2), pp.162- 172

Lee, H., Jang, S.M., (2017) ‘Talking About What Provokes Us: Political Satire, Emotions, and Interpersonal Talk’ in American Politics Research 45, pp. 128–154.