Tag Archives: occupy

The Lessons “War in the Neighborhood” Could Have Taught Us at Occupy

000 introductionThe struggles we find ourselves in –for justice, equality, and a democracy worthy of the name– are not new. Yet we’re endlessly forming new groups, writing new charters, experimenting with new tactics as though we were the first people ever to struggle against injustice.

Driving across North America in the past year, we were struck by the profound lack of institutional memory in radical communities wherever we went. People doing work that was important, even essential, could often tell us nothing about what their organization had been like 10 years ago, if it had existed at all.

The left leaves few records and most of these are hagiographies–saintly accounts of the lives of larger-than-life heroic figures that read more like myths than histories. It is a rare book that transcends this shallow style and speaks frankly about the painful difficulties encountered by social movements. That kind of book is full of important lessons for us. ”War in the Neighborhood’ is that kind of book.

I wish I’d had a chance to read it before walking into that Occupy camp, 5 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of headache. Here’s why.

000 too much like everyone else

1: You aren’t the first people to take public space

‘War in the Neighborhood’ is partially about the struggle to protect the public’s right to use Tompkins Square Park. One of those uses, dating to before the struggle, is as the site of a tent city for the homeless. In the course of the struggle to preserve the park as a place to drink and hang out, conflicts with the cops made it an unsafe place to sleep.

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Confrontations between cops and activists would raise the emotional temperature of the park, but while the activists could go home, many of the people living in the tent city were home – and had nowhere to go when the cops came to work out their frustrations.

000 homeless already lived there

“Reclaiming” urban space is always more complicated than it looks. In North America particularly, that space is always colonized land. In a more immediate sense, the space is often being used by people who don’t want to see it ‘reclaimed’. During the era of the Occupy camps, we dropped into that park without any notion of this. We were bringing media and police attention to a space that homeless people had been living in quietly for years.

000 homelessness is a problem of capitalism

I wish we’d all known a little bit more about past struggles like ours, and known ahead of time that we needed to be mindful of the needs of the folks already living in the park. They are capable of doing their own very powerful organizing if they choose, organizing we could have supported if we had treated them with respect.

 

 

2: The police are not your friends

Alright, there are plenty of people who know this, and I can hear them into the peanut gallery rolling their eyes at the obvious point and congratulating themselves on how on-point their politics are. Good for you.

000 the cops are not your friends

The trouble is, not everyone knows this, and vague denunciations of authority from angry punks do not always persuade the larger group. The police are tricky, and they know how to present a friendly face as well as their real one. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see the cops put pressure on squatters by offering them a deal. The squatters, divided by the proposal, eventually accept. Needless to say, they are betrayed by the police.

000 the cops are not your friends 2

Some of the people at Occupy knew better than to waste time talking to the cops, but many did not. The police could make little demands about where we put our tents or how we hung our tarps, and sow division without working very hard– these petty demands caused us to turn against each other. They were going to evict us eventually either way but the conflict over whether or not to comply with these petty demands created real conflict between us.

The police are not all billy clubs and tear gas. They will make little helpful gestures to win your trust. At one Occupy march, I remember them sharing bottled water with us. But by then we were wise – “Ew, cop water,” was how one friend put it. Earlier we had not always been so savvy. The police’s polite request to ‘liaise’ (read: pump us for information) or offers to protect our marches (read: control and contain our protests) convinced some people that they were on our side. When they swept into the camp in the middle of the night, tore down our tents and brutalized one of our friends, they made it perfectly clear whose friends they were.

I wish we had all known well enough to be on the same page, and understood the role of the police in suppressing resistance.

 

000 cop in our head

3: Outside organizations will try to control your politics

The left is full of self-appointed leaders and self-anointed messiahs. Academics, vanguard parties, one-man black blocs and all kinds of people whose analysis is so pure that they get high on the fumes. These people will show up at your movement and tell you where it’s going, what path it’ll take to get there, and what kind of clothes you should wear for your media appearances. What they won’t do, generally, is the dishes – or anything else useful.

000 outside politics

This isn’t so much a problem of ideology as of personality. Some people know how to be humble, pull together as a team and do their share of every kind of work. Some people are so convinced of their special genius that they think they are making the most important possible contributions by telling everyone else what to do and think.

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‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows us both kinds of people. Luna, a member of the RCP, becomes one of the most persistent and dedicated squatters. An angry anarchist denounces her participation and the squat as a whole because they are, presumably, guilty by association. Eventually, Luna herself leaves the party over its homophobic views and controlling nature.

000 luna and rcp

When Occupy enjoyed its brief historical moment, plenty of groups wanted to control it. They showed up with their critiques, their literature, sometimes even with printed t-shirts. They would try to change the way Occupy was governed, or how it framed its messaging. Some were a problem, but others weren’t. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter so much what group they were from. What mattered was how willing they were to set their personal politics aside and work for the collective good of the group, instead of trying to co-opt it to serve their own purposes.

It can be a lot to keep track of, especially for folks who are new to activism. But I wish I’d known then what I know now – people show you how much you can trust them based on how respectful and committed their participation is.

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4: But you never know who your best comrades will turn out to be…

…but you can find out, easily enough! People vote with their time and energy. Look to see who’s putting in the work and who’s standing around talking shit. In ‘War in the Neighborhood’, we see a variety of people, including communists, ex-cons, teenage anarchists, people with active addictions and the homeless prove to be the best of comrades.

That is not always intuitive. It is easy to be drawn to the most articulate people, or the ones who seem to have the most support in the group. You can be taken in by people’s charms or by the appearance of experience. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter how articulate someone is, how experienced they are, or how great their analysis is, if they can’t put their own agenda aside and work as part of a team.

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At Occupy I definitely had a preference for people who shared my politics and cultural values most closely. But I learned in time that I valued the friendships of all kinds of people – liberals, social democrats, other anarchists and even 9/11 truthers (thanfully, those guys came around).

Of course, we were working inside an anarchist framework, with a set of anarchist assumptions. Over time, I watched a lot of those folks evolve into the best anarchists I know. But I think this point holds true no matter what the ideology of your group. If people focus on the work, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from. You’re headed the same way.

SQUASH 5

 

5: Holding space may be the only thing you agree on

This is a much less universal lesson than some of the others, but I think that you can apply it pretty broadly. Groups form around particular issues, and people may not agree on much else. Holding space was at the centre of the Occupy movement’s politics, and applies equally to the struggles for public space and homes depicted in ‘War in the Neighbourhood’.
000 tea party

Rules are a recurring theme for ‘War in the Neighborhood’. Should this squat be drug free? Should we negotiate with the cops? Are we prepared to tolerate sexism? In different ways these questions are all part of the bigger question: “How will we make this space our own?” and “What is this space for?” But while everyone agrees with ‘making this space our own’, they can’t even agree what that looks like.

000 disputes

At my Occupy camp, and I suspect at many others, the problem was worse, if anything. Should we march? Should we build the camp? Should we make signs? Should we make dinner? Again, holding the park was just about the one thing we all agreed was necessary.

This was a real shock to me. I arrived thinking that people would more or less be there for the same reason I was – tired of the growing power of the rich and ready to hold them to account. The reality was not so simple. I wish I had been able to better anticipate that.

 

6: People whose help you might hope for will sit on the sidelines and criticize

There were some people who were not so ready to accept the riot of ideas and ideology on display at Occupy. I couldn’t believe them. I was putting aside a lot of my own ideas about how the world should work out of some abstracted sense of the common good. Why couldn’t they do the same?

000 sideline criticism

People have agendas. They look at social movements and they ask themselves if these social movements serve those agendas. Then they decide if they are going to participate, criticize, or both. If your revolution doesn’t look like it’s going to serve their purposes, don’t expect to see them frying tofu in the kitchen tent.

“War in the Neighborhood” shows us that people have different reasons for wanting you to fail. Maybe they don’t like some of your members. Perhaps they disagree with your group’s tactics. Maybe they didn’t get their way in your group and so they left.

Sometimes people who should be comrades simply aren’t. It’s easy to take that personally, but you shouldn’t. It happens every time. All you can do is to keep doing your best to be honest, persistent and fair.
000 disputes 2

7: There are no easy answers

Maybe I should have known this one before Occupy started. I thought I knew it, really. I thought I knew that things were so close to hopeless that it would take a change in world conditions to create an opportunity for change. But then in Occupy I saw that opportunity.

In a way, all social struggles have the potential to make us feel like everything has changed. ‘War in the Neighborhood’ shows impossible victories – people taking over abandoned buildings, neighborhood people fighting back against police violence, homeless people winning the right to maintain a tent city in Tompkins Square Park.

But even when all the rules of normal life seem to be inverted, there are no easy answers. You can fight like hell and do everything right only to watch it all fall apart because of some unhappy accident. We are still learning, all of us struggling to build a better world. I don’t think anyone has all the answers. But if we could get better at telling stories about what went right – and what went disastrously wrong – we might not be quite so completely doomed to repeat our history forever.

 

wordless visually stunning

 

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Interview #1: joe (Perth, ON)

This comic is first of a series of interviews we are doing as we travel across North America. If you’d like us to visit your town, e-mail us.

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Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

It probably doesn’t need saying that I love comics. I would not have committed myself to a life of reading, writing, researching and reviewing comics if they were not very dear to me, masochistic tendencies aside. But while I adore them, political comics put me in a jam so thick I consider spreading it on my mid-morning toast. Maybe my partner’s thinking has infected me; when she started Ad Astra Comix close to two years ago as a review site, she said it was in part because the quality of political comics was generally so low.

Continue reading Blue Collar, Black Ink: NYC’s Strand Bookstore as a Site of Class Struggle

Political Comics at #TCAF 2013

It’s safe to say that this past week was one of the busiest for me in recent memory. On top of working a 40 hour week at my day job (in 4 days), the Toronto Comic Arts Festival was in full swing and I was pulling together what I’d hope would be two kick-ass events for the weekend.phone photos 058
TCAF breaks records every year–has since I’ve been attending at least. If this year didn’t reach fire-code-breaking capacity at the Toronto Reference Library (in addition to several off-site satellite locations), and to be sure, they’re still still waiting on the official numbers, then it was awfully close. More notably there was an insane amount of talent at the show: Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly of RAW Magazine / MAUS / New Yorker fame. Jaime + Gilbert Hernandez, Tagame, Matsumoto, Chester Brown, Seth, David B… the list goes on.
Unlike my previous years at the festival, I saw a notable rise in interest (as well as work available) pertaining to political comic books. This is despite the skiddishness that remains around the term “political”. But whatever people want to call it, I found much more to chew on over the weekend than in years past.
Before I go into some books, a note on Comics Journalism.
If there’s one way to get people to talk comfortably about political comics and their viability, it’s Comics Journalism. I think it’s seen as a happy medium for a lot of  different interest groups, whether it’s non-comic folk looking for some different non-fiction, or comic fans looking for a different type of page to turn. In turn, the sub genre doesn’t effect the topic. Joe Sacco really birthed the term, from his thumb-to-index-finger loins, with work like Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, using comics to take on some pretty acceptable topics of intrigue in the journalism community… but since, really, you could do a comics journalism piece on just about anything and it would have the potential to be amazing. I look forward to seeing more and more come to maturity in this genre over the coming years.
…And secondly, a brief note about Art Spiegelman’s MAUS. I did not include MAUS in this list, because 1) I think it’s deserving of a little more commentary than one paragraph, for all it has done to influence the world of political comics… and comics in general. 2) It was put out 20 years ago. I feel like it’s a bit silly to put it among a list of up-and-comers with newly released works. (In other words, there will be more on MAUS as a specific work to come soon on Ad Astra!)
OK. To the books.

mattbors_lifebeginsatincorporation
LIFE BEGINS AT INCORPORATION by Matt Bors – I’ve never considered myself a fan of editorial cartoons, so when I decided to back Matt’s Kickstarter campaign, that really just meant that I liked his work more than I cared to admit. After a bit of discussion and a lot of planning on both ends, Matt was able to make it up to Toronto to promote his book at TCAF, in the midst of some type of Eastern-Time-Zone-only book tour.
The book is a collection of political cartoons and essays spanning years of wonderful American political drama- from the gay marriage debate that is still somehow being discussed, to the continuing occupation of Afghanistan and the reality that war-time simply seems to be the perpetual reality for Americans, post-9/11. I have plenty to say about this book and have already uttered plenty of niceties here. My recommendation over reading my book-length review is just to buy the book. It’s better.
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)
From left to right: Rutu Modan (Jerusalem), Matt Bors (Portland), Sarah Glidden (vagabond drifter), Josh Neufeld (New York City)

I will add, however, that Matt gave a great presentation to an engaged crowd at the Comic Book Lounge on May 10, the night before TCAF–despite monsoon thunderstorms and a competing 10th Anniversary TCAF party down the road (we had this shit scheduled MONTHS ago. We’re not the splinter group. THEY’RE the splinter group!). Attendees included at least one other fellow Kickstarter backer, which was great to see.
On Saturday evening, Matt and I shared a table with comic creators Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, and Rutu Modan to discuss “Comics & Politics” at TCAF to a great crowd who asked lots of questions–from comics journalism to comics activism, free speech and “to draw or not to draw” (discussing the Mohammed cartoon), stereotypes, backlash for work done… it was great. And what’s more, it shows a genuine interest in political comics from a variety of entry points.
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HOW TO UNDERSTAND ISRAEL IN 60 DAYS OR LESS by Sarah Glidden – Right in there on the topic of Comics Journalism. Sarah Glidden went to Israel on a Birthright trip and came out of it with How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Not only is it a journalistic piece about the country, it is journalism of herself experiencing it. The artwork is very much a European comic book style, with simple, expressive line work and really nice coloring (these are pretty much the first two things I think about when someone says European Comics). It’s packed with a thousand little stories that maybe tell us more about an American’s viewpoint on Israel than Israel itself, in all its historical and political turmoil. But I like the frankness that Glidden gave when describing the outcome of the book while at the TCAF panel (at the risk of seeming “wishy-washy”), when she said that this place became real when she traveled there, and the people in it became human beings. While I may not agree with Sarah on her political conclusions (and I’ve yet to see, as I’ve yet to finish the book!), it hardly seems relevant when we’re talking about a work of art that is depicting a personal experience.joshneufeld_ADNewOrleans

A.D. NEW ORLEANS by Josh Neufeld – This book has been on my list to pick up for some time, and it was a pleasure to share a stage with Josh and talk to him about this project. I’ve yet to fully pinpoint my thoughts on this, but there is something to be said about  a writer’s perception of an experience, and a visualist’s perception of the same thing. Neufeld seems to pick up on details of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that go missing in other accounts–and it’s not just a matter of mainstream vs. independent media. The wreckage, the crowds, the sweat, the loss of cherished items… all pulls at you differently when you are immediately able to absorb the information through a drawn depiction, without the filter or process of language. I particularly like the variety of people interviewed and their respective color palettes in the book’s pages. This will be a great one to finally read cover to cover.

I also got two other books that were illustrated by Josh Neufeld – The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and Stowaway, written by Tori Marlan. Both works of comic journalism, although entirely different.


davidB_bestofenemiesBEST OF ENEMIES by Jean-Pierre Filiu et David – When I first eyed this book at TCAF last year, I’d already spent all my money. Good thing I have a better job this year. Best of Enemies explores the long and complex history of U.S.-Middle East relations. It is part 1 of 3: 1783-1953, and so incredibly fascinating. David B.’s illustrations are absolutely addictive; despite history typically being considered a dry subject matter, he ads enough art and style to the panels to keep even the subject’s most un-enthused reading on. In my limited French comprehension, David had to tell me in English that he and Jean-Pierre, an historian and former diplomat, are busy working on the next book, despite their own crazy schedules traveling around the world. I look forward to reading this one, as well as the coming two.


vendittihuddleston_homelanddirectiveTHE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston – One of the few works of fiction that I picked up over the weekend, this self-described ‘political thriller’ is available through Top Shelf Productions, one of my favorite publishers. I always worry about books that look like this one… I don’t want to read a comic book version of the Bourne Identity, although the plot to this one sounds a bit more like the BBC TV show, Utopia. What pushed me over the fence with this one was the attention to detail that I can see–the stylistic and color scheme differences in the artwork as the pages change scenes, the elaborate plot that all ties together at the end (according to the dude from Top Shelf…. who I believe, cause they’re usually believable). Great cover art, too. I will get to this one, albeit a little later than some of the others. Suspicion ensues….


harveypekar_clevelandHARVEY PEKAR’S CLEVELAND with art by Joseph Remnant – In hindsight I’m trying to remember the reason I purchased this comic. It may have been the incredibly detailed pen and ink cross-hatch artwork, or the wonderfully vivid content of working class history in the Midwest, or the introduction by Alan Moore. All are good takers; combined, they won me over. It looks like a great read that most people would greatly under estimate.


7SbooksSEVEN STORIES PRESS at TCAF
Was so psyched to see Seven Stories Press –traditionally not a comics publisher–at TCAF this year. What a great addition to the exhibitors list. Tons of historical and political comics to choose from. I would place them as pretty much the only contenders to have stocked radical comics at the festival. Kudos to them coming and to TCAF for welcoming change and getting them on-board!

THE BEGINNING OF THE AMERICAN FALL by Stephanie McMillan – Yet another work of comics journalism, documenting the nature and relevance of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. This book was the 2012 winner of the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights Journalism Award – not an award that I’m familiar with, but impressive nonetheless for a type of journalism not yet fully grasped. I am particularly interested in this because it is a political comic that isn’t afraid to take a side- it clearly sees its prerogative as educating a broader audience about the Occupy Movement and inciting a greater level of political participation in the world around us. Can’t wait to read.

AS THE WORLD BURNS by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan – Also at the Seven Stories Press table was this title, also one that I’d never heard of. This book teams McMillan up with notorious deep ecology activist Derrick Jensen to make satirical play on the impending environmental and ecological crises of out time. While it is fictional (perhaps allegorical?) it is undeniably meant to shock people at just how close we’re getting to a great collapse. Looking forward to the read.

PARECOMIC by Sean Michael Wilson and Carl Thompson – Also by Seven Stories Press, about Michael Albert and his development of Participatory Economics. I will probably pair this one up with another comic I plan to review about capitalist economics and see how many of you are still awake at the end. Introduction by Noam Chomsky. See, now you have to buy it.

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CANADIAN POLITICAL COMICS at TCAF

If political comics can be construed as typical, then it is assumed that the great bulk of them at the festival would be from the U.S. Despite TCAF being a Canadian event, there’s just more of everything coming from the U.S. in comics. But to my delight I was able to find some great work available through Conundrum Press, a publisher based out of Nova Scotia.

THE HERO BOOK by Scott Waters – Not so much a graphic novel or comic as an illustrated memoir (it says that right on the cover), The Hero Book is an artistic yet journalistic look at the culture and psychology of Canadian soldiers. At least, that’s as far as I can tell. Sorry, I was too busy looking at the ABSOLUTELY JAW-DROPPING artwork to read any more than a couple of sentences. Holy shit, this book is beautiful. And from what I can tell, the content is right up my alley. Looking forward to the read.

CHIMO by David Collier – While dealing with the topic of Canadian soldiers like the work above, Chimo appears to be much more comic book-y. As a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program (seriously, I was surprised as well to hear that such a thing existed), Collier actually went through basic training to be able to write this book. As far as I know, he was in his early 40’s at the time. Impressive, David! It makes drawing out 100 pages sound pretty damn easy!

PAUL JOINS THE SCOUTS by Michel Rabagliati – This book fascinates me. The folks at Conundrum described it to me as something from their ‘Young Adult’ section, but pointed out that it covers a lot of the FLQ crisis in Quebec during the 1970s. What an interesting combination! I love the idea of mixing political and non-political plot lines (isn’t that more like real life?). Paul is the author’s semi-autobiographical character, so it would appear that the work draws from a lot of first-hand experience. Looks like a great piece – can’t wait to pick it up.