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Book on Occupy’s Tent City Era Helps Anchor Roots of Evolving Movement

(Image: Write To Power)

There has likely not been a sociopolitical phenomenon more heavily documented than the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. What took root in Zuccotti Park and quickly blossomed in over 1,000 sites throughout the United States captured the world’s imagination, but also its cameras, laptops, iPhones and Twitter accounts. No sooner had OWS celebrated its two-month anniversary, the first “Occubooks” began to appear, offering first cuts at making sense of the most exciting populist movement to rock the United States in seventy-five years. Unsurprisingly, they offered a mixed bag of quality and focus. A steady stream of OWS books has since appeared on bookshelves and Nooks. And while the latest publications offer increasingly strong and coherent narratives of what happened, they understandably privilege events that went down in and around the belly of the beast – Wall Street.

99 Nights With the 99 Percent,” Chris Faraone’s engaging new book on OWS, takes a different tack. The most recent book in the proliferating Occupy literature, “99 Nights” – a rollicking, richly textured collection of reports, profiles, photos and poems – presents the most thoroughly encompassing history of OWS to date. Faraone – a reporter with the Boston Phoenix – spent the final quarter of 2011 zipping back and forth between coasts and camps, filing some of the hardest-hitting and most entertaining dispatches from some ten cities across the United States. Along the way, he reported on many of the less talked about, but arguably most important, dimensions of the Occupy movement – issues of race and gender, crime in the camps, sympathetic police and the myriad characters and personalities that kept the movement ticking in its darkest moments. At the same time, “99 Nights” never gets entirely swept up in the excitement and chaos of individual settings, presenting instead a broadly rendered portrait of a national movement in all its diversity; beauty; and, at times, self-contradiction. I recently spoke with Faraone about his new book, the encampment era of OWS, police brutality coast to coast and what the future might hold for the Occupy movement in 2012.

Michael Busch: Let’s begin by talking about the book itself. “99 Nights with the 99 Percent,” and in fact your reporting generally, is different in a number of respects from other stuff out there on Occupy. Describe your approach and what you intended to accomplish setting out.

Chris Faraone: Basically what I wanted to accomplish was to present a sort of time capsule. All the chapters are kept in the present tense as they were when I was originally reporting on the events. No matter what happened before this – with other movements that led up to Occupy – and no matter what happens in the future, here’s the story of what happened in those three months. People will look back at the encampment era differently, especially in academia, where different interpretations will be offered that will depend on what happens moving forward. My book offers observations of what actually happened in the moment when the camps were going strong. Of course, I am only one person who can only cover so much – about a dozen cities, with most of my coverage centered on Boston and New York – and so at the same time I didn’t want to lose the sense that this was huge, something that was really popping nationally. One number we kept seeing was that there were roughly 1,600 American cities, occupied in some degree or another. I wanted to reflect, not each of them individually, obviously, but the general sense that things were really bubbling across the country, and I tried doing this by including the timeline made up of haikus.

A lot of these other books – and some of them, like the n+1 book, are really great – while not academic, really get into the nitty-gritty of things, like the methods of organizing employed, or offer a history of what led up to this moment. My book tries to get through all that, not get distracted by those considerations, by documenting what happened day-by-day. I started by writing out a timeline of the first hundred days, but it felt arbitrary and it didn’t really flow with the rest of the book. And while I was doing this, the word “occupaiku” popped into my head. I googled it and found – amazingly – that no one had come up with it, probably the only “occupun” that hasn’t been totally used and abused. I found that writing haikus for each day was a good way to make sense of what had been happening. And so these poems, as well as the photos I included with them before each chapter, allowed me to bring together my own experience during those three months, and also really helped me make clear that this shit was going on all across the country.

MB: You’ve had what’s been a contentious relationship, at times, with Occupiers and their media reps. Where has the tension come from and what have been the greatest challenges for you reporting on the Occupy movement?

CF: Well, the first challenge is that basically I’m sympathetic to just about everything Occupy has been doing and talking about. I say something to that effect right at the start of the book. These are issues that I’ve been covering passionately for years, especially the issue of foreclosures which I had been reporting on in the months right before Occupy. Where the risk comes is that I had been reporting on the community organizations that are deeply rooted in the neighborhoods where foreclosures had hit the hardest. And so to watch Occupy at the very beginning – and I’ll go on record as saying that it almost impeded, in some ways, the actions that had been building and building – was frustrating. My reporting on that was not welcome by all.

Later, though, with the camps, the truth is that the people running the media teams weren’t always in tune with the craziness that was going on in the camps at night. They weren’t always the ones who had to put up with it or who had to deal with it – the drunks, the drug addicts – and these were things that were really happening. And when I reported on this stuff, I was confronted with this line “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” which is bullshit. I wasn’t there to nitpick these things to criticize the larger movement, obviously. But when they become issues – people don’t want to see them, but they were hard truths – they need to be reported on. Take Philadelphia for instance: this is precisely why the fucking camp fell apart, completely, because that stuff ended up taking over. Michael Allen Godlberg from the Philadelphia Weekly did a great job of writing about this stuff and was shit on for it. And what ended up happening in Philly? By the end there wasn’t even a media tent left in the encampment. It had become a fucking shantytown.

But I will give the Occupy movement this: they are transparent. They air their dirty laundry on Twitter, for Christ’s sakes. A lot of organizations and movements simply don’t do that. We all know that a lot of the same issues – male dominance of the discussion, for example – that have affected social movements in the past of course affect Occupy Wall Street. But unlike before, now it’s all out there for everyone to see. In the first three months, though, there was this sense, understandably, that either the media was out to get Occupy, or they were out to do a lazy job in covering it. And so the media reps were sensitive about it. And I understood that. It was a pain in the ass at first, but you know, you have to prove yourself.

MB: What surprised you the most as you visited various Occupy camps around the country?

CF: Well, probably the extent to which every occupation takes on the characteristics of its city. Whereas, for example, I’ve been in several working group tents down at Wall Street and in Dewey Square in Boston, I don’t think I was ever actually invited in to one. The West Coast was completely the opposite, just unbelievably friendly. Literally, everywhere I went, people were just so welcoming, it was completely different. So that was one thing.

The other thing I learned was that the diversity that people talk about in the camps was no bullshit. You had steelworkers, homeless veterans – and I can’t stress the presence of homeless vets enough. It points to the absolute irony of the running conservative line about OWS. Just as they refuse to acknowledge that there is a homeless veterans problem in this country, just as they refuse to acknowledge that there are thousands of unemployed pipe fitters, they refuse to acknowledge that these groups were present in the camps, that they are a part of this movement.

And finally, the observation I keep coming back to – which is obvious, but we rarely talk about it – is that the problems the camps had to confront – homelessness, drug addiction – are not new problems as anyone who has lived in a city can tell you. The difference was that suddenly they were front and center; they were out there for everyone to see. For someone who’s constantly frustrated that these issues are so frequently overlooked, it was interesting to see people’s reactions. And not surprisingly, the reaction from a lot of people was “yuck, go back to where you came from.”

MB: Talk about Occupy the Hood. One of the underreported angles on OWS has been the tension you describe between Occupy camps and Occupy the Hood offshoots. First of all, what are the contentions, and how, if at all, have they been managed and resolved in different cities? Do you get the sense the relationships that have formed between Occupiers and outside organizers, especially those working in communities of color, have sparked honest discussions about race, or not?

CF: I would say that an honest discussion about race is there in some regard. But in other ways, it hasn’t really been addressed. A lot of people know it should go down, but at the same time, they feel that things are pretty immediate right now, and so it takes a back seat. But the issue remains. A lot of people will point out, just like Jamal Crawford says in my book, that when we think of all the shit that people have been through with Occupy – let’s say, you got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge – well guess what? That ain’t shit compared to what happens just four blocks from the bridge in Brooklyn every day. If people were going hungry in a camp, that’s nothing compared to the poverty that has existed in our neighborhoods over the years. The problems that Occupiers were dealing with in the camps have been problems, but in much greater magnitude, that communities of color have been dealing with for some time.

As far as Occupy the Hood is concerned, here we arrive at another problem. Black activists are better equipped to talk about this, but to be frank, there are a lot of black people across the country who are just not interested in the horizontal democracy model. It’s the specifics of it – the finger wiggling, the stack, the leaderless of it – that in certain ways run contrary to legacy of the civil rights movement in this country. It’s been said to me, “look, black people don’t want to sit around in circles with their legs crossed, wiggling their fingers.” This is obviously a gross overgeneralization. And it’s not that the people are opposed to the horizontal model in theory. It’s just that, for example in Chicago, while general assemblies are going on in Grant Park, there are 100,000 foreclosed upon homes on the Southside. And so it becomes an issue of immediacy.

But let’s not forget about places like Oakland, which predominantly comprise communities of color, where people have been pissed off for a long time, and where, in that case, Black, Latino and Asian groups were already organized together. When I was out there, and I tweeted something like “oh my god, this amazing: there are all these different groups out marching together,” and Boots Riley corrected me and said “no, this is just Occupy Oakland, it’s all one thing.” To hinge on this, and the final thing I’ll say here, is that fortunately a lot of the relationships between different groups that started out superficially, I’ve seen become more organic as time goes on, but it has to happen naturally. At the same time, it’s important to remember, too, that it’s early, that we are still less than half a year into this thing, so we’ll see.

MB: You say that an entire book could be written about the Occupy con man Paul Fetch. Would you talk a bit about who he is, what he allegedly did, and where he is now?

CF: Paul Fetch. I have no idea where he is right now, though he was allegedly spotted in Boston not that long ago. He – and I need to be careful with what I say since he’s already sued a bunch of people in Boston – is an alleged con man. But the amazing thing about Paul Fetch is that he is, in one person, the embodiment of and speaks to multiple phenomena related to the OWS. First, financial vulnerability. Fetch was in Occupy camps in Boston, New York and Cleveland, but it’s a problem for encampments everywhere. In Boston alone, OWS was collecting $2,000 a day in cash. And this was not a group of people that was necessarily well equipped to take care of lots of money. It was begging for someone to take advantage. Furthermore, he’s been involved with Anonymous. And of course, Anonymous was crucial to the success of Occupy. In Boston, particularly, Fetch’s presence brought a lot of skeletons out of the closet, at least as far as that was concerned.

He’s a character. I’ve never had a harder subject to write about than him. I would check everything ten times, and everyone had a different story. But more than anything, he was one person who really woke up the Occupy movement. They realized a bunch of stuff – and not just that they had to watch the money. They were also suddenly forced to confront this issue of, “how do we kick someone out if we have to?” That would be a fascinating book right there, a collection of profiles of each person who’s been kicked out of an Occupy camp around the country and how that happened. I mean, people think it’s hard firing a union employee, just try throwing someone out of an Occupy camp. Though I have to say that, out west in places like Seattle, guys like Paul Fetch would have had their asses kicked and would have been dragged into the street.

MB: Why is that?

CF: Well, I wouldn’t say that the movements out west were more violent, just that they had to be more defensive of themselves. They had to be. I mean, you’re talking about camps where half the people were covered in chemical burns – the police brutality was at a whole different level. In Oakland – I can’t believe I haven’t seen this reported on more nationally – at one point they had two different camps. Snow Park was filled with people who wanted nothing to do with violence. And that doesn’t mean that everyone else wanted to be violent. It means that after everything Oakland has been through, starting with Oscar Grant and going straight through to everything that happened in Occupy, people just weren’t willing to say “yeah, we’ll just sit back and take it.” So the level of what people were willing to put up with was completely different, from everything I observed, on the East and West Coasts. The way people badgered the cops on the East Coast, just wouldn’t have happened on the west coast. They would have been pepper sprayed immediately.

MB: Why are the two coasts so different?

CF: Well, and I’m speaking strictly anecdotally, I think it has a lot to do with the sheer numbers of people involved out west: tens of thousands of people in the street. You’d get a couple of thousand people, say, in Boston’s biggest marches. And so what’s happening on the West Coast was just at a completely different level. And of course there’s history: Oakland has had a lot of experience with police brutality; Seattle got all the training it needed in the 1990s. And this accounts for a lot of the reaction to the protests on both sides. I mean, have you seen some of the videos that came out of Occupy Seattle? And I am not just talking the one with Dorli Rainey, the eighty-four year old woman who was pepper sprayed during a march. There are others that didn’t get much hype because no one died; they didn’t involve brutalized octogenarians, or whatever – you can find them online. There’s one that just blows me away more than any of the rest where a cop, riding a bike on the left side of a totally peaceful, day-time march of a couple of hundred protesters and he just breaks out a can of pepper spray and just starts spraying people in the face as he rides by. And this, like everything else, just feeds reaction in both directions. But it’s not just an East/West Coast thing. The city that has been probably the harshest in response has been Chicago, which, of course, is really Rahm Emanuel. And this is to say nothing of what went down in smaller camps that got nothing but local coverage – the Tuscons, Tulsas. I looked through the timeline of events and I see that hundreds of people were arrested in a city like Tulsa, which when you look at it proportionally, would be like a thousand people being arrested in a city like Boston or New York.

MB: On this issue of the cops, describe Occupy Police and Operation Shield. What’s your sense on the success or failure that men and women in uniform have had trying to claim a space in the 99 percent?

CF: Well, what I have to say on this is not just as someone who is sympathetic to protesters who get the shit kicked out of them for doing absolutely nothing, but has to do with things more generally. Look at Philly – which again, fell apart on its own. I was going back and forth between Philadelphia and New York, which each had about the same number of people in the camps. In New York, you had Zuccotti surrounded by about 150 cops. In Philly, there were about four. Philly kept it a lot less aggressive, and there was a lot more interaction between the police and the encampment. And in a way, it makes sense. I mean, who among us doesn’t know someone who has been foreclosed upon, who among us hasn’t been affected by the crisis. Police, fireman, they’re blue collar, too. And they were put into some unbelievable positions throughout all this, in some places day-after-day. You know, for all the bad press that the relationships between police officers and occupiers naturally got, I was on several marches where I saw protesters and cops laughing together, and I’ve witnessed several occasions where officers tip off protesters about what’s going to happen, get messages into the camps. And in testimonials there is example after example of individual police officers, and groups of police officers, who didn’t want to do some of the things that were expected of them, or that they were told to prepare to do. I don’t have to say it. What Todd Gitlin argues about this, I couldn’t agree with more. There’s a validation of the movement that goes on when outside authority figures, especially those that have worn various uniforms – whether police or military – express sympathy and solidarity.

MB: Finally, what do you think we can expect to see in the spring? Some people have been talking everything from retaking city squares and focusing on reclaiming foreclosed upon homes to moving toward direct-action campaigns targeting the workplace, while others suggest that the movement has lost steam during the winter and what we’ll see from here on out will be a hollow version of its previous self. What’s your take?

CF: I’ve been writing about inter-Occupy phone calls and list servs that have been going on since the camps broke up. And that was just the start of what’s going on now, which has been a lot more organic. If you go to any General Assembly, on any given weekend, and you’ll find people from all over: Boston, New York, DC, Rochester. This past weekend at a GA meeting in Boston there were a dozen people from Delaware, and people from Providence. So there’s a difference about people simply talking, and what they’re doing now which is sharing ideas for actions. The West Coast has had this down for a minute – their inter-Occupy phone calls led to two port shutdowns. The East Coast, while there aren’t as many power houses out here as there are out west, and while there’s been solidarity from the start, now we’re beginning to see a movement beginning to take hold across cities. Without a doubt, the best example of this was Occupy the Primaries. It didn’t get that much press, but at Occupy the New Hampshire Primary you’d get twenty people at a given action, and don’t forget that they were birddogging every candidate and there are a lot of candidates! That was before there were only four. And if you were to ask the protesters where they came from, you’d find that they had come from six or seven Occupy camps – Vermont, New Hampshire and Boston, but also from New York, people had arrived from Orlando, Tampa. We are really seeing something – this is a big political year: first the G-8 and NATO, and then the DNC and RNC conventions, these are going to witness massive Occupy efforts. Especially at the conventions, it won’t look like what’s going on in the halls, where everyone is split up into their nice little piles, divided up into states. Outside, it’s going to be huge groups of angry people from across the country, protesting together. And sure, you would have had some of those people protesting together anyways, but this time they’ll all be under the common umbrella of Occupy.

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