The Revolution Will Not Be Winterized: OWS and Martyr Politics Occupy Wall Street and Martyr Politics
One-upping "fair-weather" Occupy Wall Streeters with hypothermia isn't just unhealthy, it's also terrible politics.
I had my initial doubts, but I've warmed up to the Occupy Wall Street protests. I've praised the "We Are the 99 Percent" message and shown up to Zuccotti Park on several occasions. I've even got softened my criticism about its built-in, mandatory 24-hour commitment—it's admirable, after all, that the core group of regulars attempt to mirror the society they want to see (even if it goes awry sometimes).
Which is why it'd be painful to witness the movement devolve into a sanctimonious pissing contest about who can withstand the cold the most. Winter is coming rapidly, and there's a threat of snow this weekend in New York City. The volunteer medics have already reported cases of frostbite and trench foot. But instead of using their funds to find an indoor sleeping space (which many organizers have rejected because paying rent is against the spirit of OWS), the hardcore occupiers are sticking to their guns. In fact, reportsNew York magazine, they're inviting the frost:
[A] lot of the veteran activists and hard-core organizers are looking forward to winter, which they say will clean out the square’s riffraff and those less committed to the cause. Lauren Digion told me that "the quantity of [occupiers] will go down, but the quality will go up." Facilitators say that winter will freeze out the hoarders and the fair-weather activists. "Bring on the snow," lead organizer Daniel Zetah recently told me. "The real revolutionaries will stay in minus-50 degrees."\n
This quote made my heart sink, especially when I recalled the rush of joy I felt last month marching with thousands of people. Defining political commitment by one's suffering is so puritanical and, well, conservative. The politics of the right have always been about deprivation and restraint. Conservatives have expended a lot of their energy telling teenagers to abstain from sex, women to live (or die) for their unborn children, gays and lesbians to control themselves, people of color to stop buying so many fancy electronics, poor people to stick it out and wait for the afterlife. Even their mocking response to Occupy Wall Street, a Tumblr full of masochistic Americans blaming no one for their desperate circumstances, fetishized sacrifice. The ethos of deprivation not only puts the health of the protesters in peril, but it's out of step with their professed goals and ideology.
To be fair, progressives are guilty of this, too: "Why are you complaining/drinking/thinking about fashion when there are wars/starving people in Africa/women getting raped?" The idea that disciplined asceticism (in this case, living out of a backpack and a sleeping bag in 10-degree weather) will lead to utopia is the hippie ethos taken to the extreme. Granted, there is a difference when one has no choice but to die (or be really uncomfortable) rather than compromise their firmly-held beliefs. Or when the strike fits the crime—if all the protesters wanted was heat, let's say, and the government let them freeze. People like Gandhi or Victor Jara or the Arab Spring protesters had no other recourse; they were fighting against violent and oppressive regimes for basic rights, ones the occupiers (and hippies) were born with and have the option to reject.
The idea that comfort and excess equals greed and corruption is embedded in the message of Occupy Wall Street, but images of shivering martyrs are counter to the underlying meaning behind economic justice, which is that every person has a right to live a fulfilling and pleasurable life. It's always a shame when people are so intent on fighting against something that they forget to exemplify what they're for. Fairness and fun aren't mutually exclusive, and embracing the goal of pleasure is a far stronger revolutionary force than taking the moral high ground at the expense of personal happiness.
Occupy Wall Street has received half a million dollars in donations. Though it's not as much as the corporation-friendly Tea Party, it's enough to buy them some new digs for winter. Yes, sleeping indoors every night reduces Occupy Wall Street's visibility and waters down their stay-put rhetoric, but one-upping the "fair-weather activists" with hypothermia is exactly the kind of irksome privilege that threatens the movement's authenticity and mass appeal. Convening for say, three hours a day after office hours, day in and day out, still preserves the momentum of the movement without reducing it to an Into the Wild-style battle of the wills. With a more concentrated protest schedule, it may even coax working people to stick to the same routine as the mainstays.
Anarchist feminist Emma Goldman famously said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." It's hard to dance with frostbitten feet.