As an activist in Occupy Richmond, I worked alongside activists of all persuasions to bring attention to systemic corruption in the political economy. When I first got involved, most of my fellow occupiers were liberals of some variety. After witnessing the heavy handed tactics of the city, the petty politics that get elevated over pressing systemic problems, many of my friends began to understand the anarchist critique of reformism. As usual, the anarchists’ best ally happened to be one of the representatives of our capitalist system: Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones.
On a personal surprise visit to Occupy Richmond’s camp at Kanawha Plaza, in the shadow of the Federal Reserve System branch and numerous corporate skyscrapers, Mayor Jones pretended to hear our concerns and promised further meetings to determine how to work together. Only days later, the peaceful camp was raided by theRichmond Police. In the middle of the night, bulldozers destroyed thousands of dollars of medical supplies, food, and other equipment that had been used not just for new occupiers but the existing homeless population, a few of which had become prominent members of our movement.
In protest to this betrayal, Occupy Richmond began a series of mobilizations culminating in a new camp on the lawn neighboring Mr. Jones’ residence (at the invitation of his neighbor, a civil rights veteran and supporter). While encamped outside his house under 24/7 police surveillance, our camp drafted a protest letter to the mayor. We asked him to explain why he was engaging in such duplicity and to announce his position plainly instead of resorting to violence.
In his Nov. 16 response to Occupy Richmond, Mr. Jones claimed to share our concerns about economic injustice. He listed several programs his administration continues to pursue, including an anti-poverty commission, a homeless-reduction plan and a job-training and placement system. These programs were cited as proof of the mayor’s attention to the problems central to the movement’s mission. We appreciated his invitation for a meeting and believe a productive relationship is possible.
But surely Mayor Jones understands that a great deal of Richmond’s economic justice woes aren’t of the city’s making. They originate in national policy and the corporate hegemony that dictates the terms of that policy. These aren’t matters that anyone reasonably expects the mayor or City Council to resolve. A city administration possesses neither the resources nor the authority, let alone the wisdom, to meaningfully address the structural poverty of our global capitalist economic system.
Given these problems, the concerns we share — and the limited actions available to us — the question should be clear: What is to be done?
By establishing protest camps in public spaces, Occupy Richmond’s answer has been to make these issues impossible to be ignored, because we realize that our society excels at making systemic problems invisible to everyday people. These occupations aren’t intended to avoid any and all disruption of normal, everyday life. They’re intended to assert our legitimate rights as human beings, regardless of how inconvenient that may be to the establishment. This places us at risk, but a transformation of our social mindset equal to the challenges we face cannot take some second-place position to business as usual. Addressing these deep issues won’t be easy or comfortable, just as occupying outdoors in the city isn’t easy or comfortable.
In contrast to our tactics, how has the mayor responded to this situation? His solution is to work within the system of privilege to collect crumbs falling from the corporate table on our behalf. Unlike Occupy Richmond, the mayor has ruled out any disruption that isn’t certified through corporate-friendly channels. He rejects any political means that might interrupt normal life under our present unjust system. He’s taken the comfortable, complacent road of seeking a middle ground that leaves business as usual intact.
By seeking to preserve the status quo at all costs, the mayor props up the very system of injustice which he claims to be working against. While he may not have control over policy at the state and national levels, those policy makers rely on his governance at the local level. They count on the mayor to keep the people in check, to corral our desires for justice and progress into channels that cannot disrupt the capitalist system of exploitation.
Whether or not he realizes it, Jones’ commitment to business as usual is precisely the stability that the elites require to maintain their dominance and perpetuate their agenda. Why else did mayors in more than a dozen cities participate in a nationwide conference call on coordinating occupation crackdown strategies, to which Oakland Mayor Jean Quan admitted last year?
The mayor has abdicated a critical responsibility he owes to his values and his constituents. No authentic change comes from the top down. At the top of our society, the 1 percent and their functionaries likely feel just as trapped by the logic of this system as we do — however more comfortable it is for them. A genuine change in direction, a real and enduring evolution of mindset and values, must emerge from the bottom up. It will require all of us becoming better people, rediscovering our core values and re-establishing a civil society emphasizing responsibility, cooperation and self-organization to solve the problems that human societies encounter.
Richmond will change its unsustainable and unjust course and figure out a new business as usual — but will it work together to address the issues, or will it fight the need for change to the point of collapse? It probably depends on how much longer we think we can afford to trust mayors.
Mayor Jones can cite all the city programs he wishes. But it’s in helping us change the greater society from the bottom up that he has the real power to act on those values he claims to share with us. It isn’t easy or comfortable, and there are plenty of political reasons for him to stick to a narrow law-and-order mindset — just as there are plenty of practical reasons for all of us to stay home and not protest. But if we truly intend to overcome the obstacles to a more just and equitable future and avert the many catastrophes awaiting our country, we must all take bold and substantive action that moves us outside our comfort zone. Our very nation was founded on just such an audacious risk, and even politicians have human hearts that want liberty and community at some level.
One of Occupy Richmond’s goals has been to create a space for open, direct dialogue among citizens. That, I’d argue, is the real significance of the occupation: the unconditional demand for a deliberative body of residents unmediated by politicians’ agendas or corporate money. Only such an out-of-the-box, fully bottom-up movement can arrive at the kinds of solutions that transcend the rigid, entrenched special interests and divisive ideological identities that our system has adapted itself to serve. The marks of anarchist philosophy are clear here.
Working in a prefigurative organization that attempts to model the kind of relationships they want to see in the world, many liberals have now been exposed to the anarchist approach through the Occupy movement. They can see how frightened the institutions they sought to merely fix are at their exercise of liberty. Witnessing that fear, and seeing its results as genuine violence, makes it difficult to believe that aggregated power can be reliably used for good. Regardless of which candidate is the lesser evil, the machine they’re elected to command is too destructive to reform.