The 99% and the Production of Insurgent Subjectivity

On the evening of October 10, 2011 I sat in a large circle with several hundred occupiers and their supporters on a patch of the Rose Kennedy Greenway directly across from the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square discussing what to do in the event of a much anticipated police raid. Earlier in the day thousands of occupiers, students, and union members had marched through downtown Boston under the banner of the 99% against bank bailouts, student debt, fiscal austerity, and economic inequality. The growing militancy of the Occupy movements had been on display that afternoon when a group of young protesters decided to occupy the Charlestown Bridge in direct defiance of police orders. One person was arrested during the ensuing standoff, but a larger scuffle was averted. As the march arrived back at Dewey Square, dozens of occupiers carried their tents over to a grassy area across from the occupation with the goal of expanding the camp, which was at full capacity, to accommodate more residents. Communicating via twitter feeds, direct contacts, and a special envoy from the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the Boston police quickly indicated that a second encampment would not be tolerated. Occupiers had thus called an emergency assembly to decide how to respond.  

Given the high stakes, the assembly was much more freewheeling and passionate than usual as participants debated a proposal to defend the newly claimed territory despite the likely prospect of mass arrests. Some occupiers were concerned that a police raid would put the entire camp at risk despite assurances from the police that they would not enter Dewey Square itself. Others were upset that a small group had taken such a risky "autonomous" action without the previous consent of the General Assembly. Nonetheless, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be in support of resisting eviction, as assembly members enthusiastically "twinkled" their fingers in approval as one occupier after another argued for the importance of holding the new patch of grass. As a young student, an African American woman from a nearby university, exclaimed, "There is no room at Dewey; we need to defend this new space so the movement can continue to grow. I don't care if I get arrested—this is why I am here!" This provoked widespread support, and a consensus quickly emerged to form human chains around both Dewey and the new area, and to non-violently resist any eviction attempts. The police finally moved in at around 1:30am the next morning, arresting 140 people and dismantling the tents assembled on the new plot of land, but leaving the larger and more established encampment at Dewey Square unscathed (for an ethnographic description of the Occupy Boston encampment seeJuris 2012).

What struck me during the assembly and throughout the entire march that day was the degree of militancy and defiance displayed by the occupiers. Indeed, since Occupy Wall Street began with the take-over of Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, occupiers across the U.S. (and many parts of the world) have demonstrated a level of resistance and agency I had not seen since my experience in the mass global justice counter-summit protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Juris 2008). Occupy Boston itself had begun with a burst of collective will and euphoria as protesters first laid claim to Dewey Square in the heart of Boston's financial district on the evening of September 30, erecting their tents, organizing a public speak-out, and embarking on a series of unpermitted marches through downtown Boston while chanting, "We are the 99%, We are the 99%, You are the 99%, You are the 99%!" Such discrete acts of subversion, together with the more everyday processes of communication and interaction among individuals from so many walks of life that came together in the Occupy camps and, later, in the ongoing assemblies and working group meetings of the post-eviction phase, generated powerful feelings of collective solidarity and agency forged in the heat of resistance and struggle.

This new insurgent subjectivity, elicited through the disobedient actions of the masses of individuals aggregated in the physical spaces of the occupations (cf. Juris 2012), has been most clearly signaled through the image of the 99%, symbolizing the vast majority who are excluded from the main circuits of financial and political power that are increasingly monopolized by the 1%. In this sense, as a radical artist told me at a panel at the Left Forum in New York City on March 17, 2012, the 99% is more akin to a challenge than an assertion of social and/or political representation. Indeed, any claim to actually represent the 99% is clearly problematic given the multiple racial, ethnic, gender, class, and other differences within such a broad social category, not to mention the fact that the Occupy movements have been largely, if not entirely, White and middle class. However, in line with a performative logic, the 99% names a relation of exploitation and calls into being a subjectivity capable of not only challenging that exploitation but also building an alternative set of egalitarian and democratic practices and relationships. The claim that "We are the 99%" thus only makes sense in the act of militant defiance itself, and presupposes an accompanying "You are the 99%," thereby establishing a chain of interpellation through which new subjects are perpetually being hailed in the context of an open and expansive process of subjectification.

The current challenge facing occupiers is to find new ways of reproducing and diffusing this emerging subjectivity in the wake of the evictions of late fall 2011 and subsequent phase of subterranean organizing. As an Occupy Boston organizer explained in a meeting this past winter, "we found each other during the occupation, and now we are ready to build something together." Beyond the shifts in public discourse related to austerity and inequality, this "finding each other" is perhaps the most important contribution of the Occupy movements. The militant resistance of the mass public occupations generated a powerful insurgent subjectivity, but this will have to be reactivated, expanded, and translated into sustained organizing if the Occupy movements are to deliver on their promise, now or in the future, of ushering in an "American Spring."

References

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2012. "Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social Media, Public Space, and Emerging Logics of Aggregation." American Ethnologist 39(2): 259-279.

———. 2008. Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Jeffrey S. Juris is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University. He is the author of Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization (Duke University Press, 2008) and numerous articles on globalization, social movements, new media, and political protest in Spain/Catalonia, Mexico, and the U.S.