A Roundtable with the editors of Occupy!
This roundtable discussion between myself and the editors of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America happened over email from December 7-9, 2011. Occupy!, the book, grew out of a forty-page broadsheet called Occupy!: An OWS-Inspired Gazette, put together by the same crew, and distributed at a select number of occupations around the country.
Occupy! editors Astra Taylor, director of the documentary films Zizek! and Examined Life; Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Nikil Saval, Eli Schmitt and Carla Blumenkranz of the literary journal n+1; and Sarah Resnick, editor of Triple Canopy all participated in the discussion.
How did the Gazette come about?
Astra: Wasn't it Keith's idea? But I like Mark Greif's observation to me that Occupy! is a strange hybrid of my childhood newsletter, Keith Gessen's high school paper, and Sarah Leonard's college paper. I'm sure others made zines and other things too. In other words, we were destined to make the Gazette!
Mark: I think when I tried to explain it to people, I said, "You go home from the park, and you want to read about what you just saw. The Occupiers are doing this incredible thing, and they'll want to read about what they're doing. Maybe we could mirror the park to itself, for the Occupiers and the visitors and the bystanders." To help. Didn't we talk about the fence-sitters too--all the people we knew, who we thought should support what the Occupiers were doing? But they kept coming up with excuses not to come down to the park? Literary and political types. So we would bring the park to them. And it was definitely Keith's idea, the paper.
Nikil: Yep, Keith's idea for sure. I think the other term I kept using (to describe it to people) was "fellow travelers"--i.e. not just undecided people, but ones who wouldn't spend a bunch of time at the park, who nonetheless offered support and wanted to understand what was going on. People ideologically, if not organizationally, committed to OWS. Of which it turns out there are a lot. It was enough that there were people whose brain was like a homologue of the city--just like Zuccotti was always there in some crammed corner way south, your head could be burdened with daily life but still lighted by the obscure sense that the occupation was going on; growing, even.
And it wasn't just bringing the park to them, but bringing other places, plazas (Dilworth, Oscar Grant) to us. I think we all felt the importance of wanting to know about other places besides New York from the very start--the fact that it spread so quickly was the sign of something big.
Eli: I like what Astra said about us being destined to make it. We were looking for a way to participate in the movement in a meaningful way, so we did what we know how to do, which is collect a bunch of good writing and proliferate it. Collectively, we had all the resources to do a publishing project; it's through publishing projects that a lot of us knew each other. But I also think the Gazette has been unlike a lot of other print media that we've worked on. Like much of OWS-related organizing, it was very spontaneous, and required spare energy and time we didn't even know we had!
Keith: It should be said that Astra, Mark, Eli, Sarah Leonard, Sarah Resnick, and Elizabeth Gumport were there on the first day, on September 17, and wrote these great dispatches for the n+1 website about what it felt like to be there, what the process was like, why it was exciting. Eli even wrote down the short list of demands that their small group discussed, which I later saw turned into a slideshow by, I think, Business Insider, under the headline, "What the OWS Protesters Want," thereby demonstrating once again the voracious media hunger for demands. Carla as web editor was posting these pieces and asking for more; and then Nikil wrote a great piece about what it was like at the planning meeting before the Philadelphia occupation, when OWS went national, which Carla also posted. So we already had the most important thing that a new publication can have, which is: some articles.
But I didn't realize this right away. The first time I came to Zuccotti Park a woman handed me a leaflet from the CPUSA, and I thought: If the Communists can hand stuff out, so can we! But what? My first thought was that we should print up a little pamphlet of old n+1 pieces--all the political pieces and proposals we'd published in our Politics ghetto that no one had ever really wanted to read--but people felt this was 1) boring and 2) condescending, as if we had all the answers and we'd just print them up and hand them out.
But eventually we all started emailing--Astra would come back from Zuccotti and write an email about what she'd seen, and Sarah L. would come back from an assembly in Washington Square and write that up, and then Astra's sister Sunaura started occupying Oakland--and it just felt like there were so many things going on, that each had genuine significance, that you couldn't be in all places at once, and that, moreover, neither could the occupiers. I mean, if you're occupying a park, you don't really have that much time to run around New York, much less Philadelphia and Oakland, to see what's going on, but neither do you have time to sit online all day monitoring the news feed. It really seemed like a print publication that would be distributed for free in the park would have genuine value to those living in the park.
Then our designer Dan O. Williams came up with a brilliant design--I had imagined something much more like a newspaper, with kind of static one-page or two-page spreads, whereas Dan O made it really dynamic, in two colors and lots of different type-faces, so that we were able to basically run our reportage of the day-to-day events at Zuccotti in the top half, and then various historical analyses--Marina Sitrin on the history of horizontalism, Amy Offner on the Harvard living-wage occupation from 2001, Doug Henwood on whether to abolish the Federal Reserve--along the bottom. So, visually, it was, like, practice at the top, and some very interesting theory undergirding it--which is exactly right.
In the Preface to Occupy!, you write that you started as participant-observers, then gradually became "observers more explicitly." But even as we were going to press with the book, you were all still actively participating - several of you were even hauled off to jail a few days later, on N17. So what exactly did you mean in the Preface?
Mark: I wonder what the others think. I wrote those words. What I had in mind was that we had gone to Zuccotti Park originally as demonstrators, when there was no indication this would be more than a few days of demonstration. It was a pretty interesting scene right from the beginning. But there was no need to choose a role. As it went on, we saw the dedication of the occupiers, often kids who were there day and night, who were creating a huge organization, and coming from all over the country. Then we had to think more about our role.
We thought we could be documentarians. That's what writers like us could do, to be like the the screenprinters or the computer and social media volunteers or the folks who who were lining up support from unions or musicians. We could get in touch with visual artists and poster makers and cartoonists, too. But we we had to become observers explicitly and deliberately. And line up more people's observations--from people we met at the park, and different networks of working groups, theorists, historians. We would do history on the fly, as it was happening.
Also, I should point out, a lot of the book is in diary form. That has its perils. It's different from formal reporting with its rules and boundaries. But you don't want people to think it means you've decided you're a significant player. We didn't want the use of "I" to seem to suggest we thought we were protagonists in the drama. We weren't. But we did want to put what credibility and goodwill we hold as professional writers and filmmakers and editors on the line for this, for each person to say: "This is only what I saw. But I saw it with my own eyes, and tried to reckon with it. Whatever propaganda you read elsewhere, this is what I felt and thought about. When I understood it right away, and more often when I didn't, and had to search for other perspectives." We remained observers for the sake of the Occupy! Gazette and the book, even if we were taking part in actions.
Sarah R.: To start, I'd like to correct one factual error made earlier: I was not there that first day on September 17. I had intended to go, I had plans to go. But instead I was at home in bed with a fever and a box of tissues. And even as I was disappointed that I was home that day, I felt fairly certain I wasn't missing anything I hadn't already seen. I'd been to many protests over the years and the same few hundred people would turn up and we'd march or stand around before heading home a few hours later and I'd kind of forget it ever happened.
In May, for instance, Astra and I attended a march with what we later discovered was more than 20,000 other people, even though we still wonder where they all were or if we had somehow bypassed the main event. Later, on the night of the 17th, I read about the day's activities-only 1000 people had come out. I went to bed feeling I hadn't missed much. And a few days would go by before I realized that in fact I had. I ended up writing a diary for the first Gazette, but it wasn't until plans for the second issue and the book were under way that I started to working in an editorial role.
Which brings me to the question about the Preface. Mark explains our position well, though I'll add that I'm not sure observation and participation need to be understood as dichotomous. I've always interpreted the line about our becoming "observers more explicitly" as an eventual decision to treat our role as observers with more care and seriousness and dedication, though never at the expense of participation (except when closing an issue of the Gazette, which demands a lot of time at home on the computer). I've considered myself an active participant all along: I attended the same meetings and marches and actions I would have otherwise. But becoming an observer did mean directing a different kind of attention at the movement, one that is diligent and wholly immersed and boundless in a way. In fact, to some extent becoming observers meant broadening the scope of our involvement in the movement-to attend even more meetings and actions. And for me I know it also meant very deliberately following conversations on Facebook and on Twitter, and reading as much as possible whenever possible. I absolutely agree with Mark though when he says that for the sake of the Gazette we remained observers. Because even as we were taking part in actions, we were never the people organizing them, and we were never the significant players, and it was important that this would be apparent to our readers.
You are all rushing to complete the third issue of Gazette right now. This will be the first issue since Liberty Square and most of the other major occupations were cleared out. The movement is far from dead - in fact, it is evolving in exciting ways - but do you feel your role as media-makers and documentarians has shifted in any way?
Keith: I guess I think we're participant-observers. Sarah R. and Astra are sure as hell both attending a lot of meetings, though it's true there are even more meetings out there, and more meetings beyond that. But OWS has been really good so far about keeping itself open in a kind of perpetual meeting that you can join at any time. Naturally the number of participation points you get is directly proportional to how much time and effort you put in--but OWS has managed to keep the various expanding circles involved, I think, with the hope of expanding them further.
As an editor and writer, I've never felt so involved with a readership: n+1, when we started it, was an attempt to write the history of the present as it was happening, but there's always been a kind of delay or disconnect--which is ok--but here it felt like we were really doing it. When they came to the park in the middle of the night and kicked everyone out, that was our readers they were kicking out! We've continued handing out the Gazette in the park during GAs, and at 60 Wall Street, and also around the city--though it's not like it used to be, when we could drop 700 copies off at the Info Desk and they'd be gone in a couple of hours.
I think the issue of the Gazette we're working on now (#3) is a little more historically minded than the others have been--we're looking back at other movements of the past--the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, ACT-UP, even the New School occupation from 2008, to see how they dealt with adversity and kept their spirits up.
Carla: I would just add in response to the first question that while we all have our own explanations what it felt most like was a truly spontaneous project. As Mark said, we wanted to read about what we heard and saw-and since we collectively had the resources to write and solicit and edit and publish, creating the thing we wanted to read became almost like an obligation. Although most of us already knew each other, as a group we really solidified around wanting and together having the ability to make that happen.