Alongside this fundamental lack of clarity sat the flabbergasting opposition to the very words “occupy” or “occupation,” which could have recalled self-managed factories in Argentina and Uruguay, but instead were accused of celebrating the genocide of indigenous people. In a stunning reversal of earlier academic fads, the signifier “occupy” was restricted to a single meaning traced back to Christopher Columbus, any suggestion of polysemy rejected as if it were a personal insult. A debate that should probably have happened in a semiotics seminar took up hours at meetings where we could have planned teach-ins and rallies and workshops, or allocated clean-up tasks. Instead, we had to pore over the activist thesaurus in search of synonyms like “takeover” or “seizure.”
But things got worse. It started with a debate over authoritarian practices at a disorganized general assembly. The crowd, the biggest yet, was full of excited newcomers who were ready to join in. But they were totally silenced, reduced to receiving instructions that had not been democratically discussed. Many people spoke up to criticize this practice, including me. But each of the facilitators was a “POC” — that’s “Person-of-Color” — and after the assembly completely unraveled, an almost hilariously unsubstantiated rumor began to spread that the facilitators had been attacked by racists. This rumor became nearly impossible to dispel; even some of the usual supporters heard that the occupation wasn’t a “safe space,” and stopped showing up.
Some people began to organize separatist POC meetings, united by their complexion against a fictional collection of white anarchists. My skin got me in the door. After listening to a bewildering array of political positions — one student read aloud an email from an administrator conspiratorially accusing student protesters of attempting to undermine campus diversity initiatives — I felt the need to intervene. I stood and tried to summon up some rhetorical demons the best I could; I thought about Malcolm X, and how he always spoke in the second person (“You don’t know what a revolution is!”). I dropped names like Frantz Fanon, and tried to convince a totally heterogeneous group to drop the POC act and help build a better movement. Some observers snapped their fingers with appreciation at the occasional oratorical flourish, and ignored what I said.
NOTE: Don’t take too much comfort from these stories.
I was personally present at comical debates exactly like these in the late 1980s and the left is stronger than ever.
If “the left is eating itself,” it’s really just masticating…