Thomas Gaflan

Afterthought on “Occupations”


ISSUE 12 | HOME AND PAIN | JAN 2012

This article responds to Hypocrite Reader Issue 10, Occupations.

1: NEUTER PHYSICS

We visited Zuccotti on December 20, after the park had been forcibly “closed” to undesirable visitors and overnight residents. My wife looked around and said, you know what this feels like? And I did know. A spectral quiet, incredible cleanliness and order in the midst of a very dirty city, so much light, so much extra light, light everywhere. Decorations precise: not joyful, but solemn and ritual. People standing in small groups, talking in low voices, no distinction between the people who are present in order to be present and those who are just looking. Nothing to look at, really: Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Center of the nation, center of the world; Zuccotti, center of Wall Street, a church in itself, a still point in a large and endlessly rotating system, a little spot where pressure can be applied.

She knew it and I knew it not because we spend so much time together that we finish each others’ sentences, but because the physics of force in one place feels like the physics of force in the other. To have a people’s republic is a kind of fantasy: it must in the end be administered by certain people, and it is therefore a certain peoples’ republic. When the rest of the people dislike, resent and oppose those certain people, the daily oligarchy of the republic becomes very clear very quickly, and the fantasy jerks and slips off the reel. There are many ways for the 1%, whether Communist or capitalist, to deal with this gap in the fantasy: reform is one. Or they can clear out the opposition, take their space, and neuter it.

2: NOBODY DIED

Nobody died in Tiananmen. The place couldn't be saved if they had—if the demonstrations had turned into a bloodbath there, part of the government's struggle against its people would have already been lost, and they would have razed the whole area. The people that died during the massacre died in the streets around the square, in the approaches and alleys where there were no cameras, where the demonstrators were not so savvy and not so well-connected. Where the fact of the demonstrators’ non-violence couldn't be proven. Where the aggression of the state was equally obscure.

And Zuccotti Park? No deaths. Four people have been murdered in the California state prison system in the last two months. Men in Holmes County, Mississippi, live an average of 65.9 years. Native Americans have the highest suicide rate in America. Just up the street at the World Financial Center, there's a little shopping mall inside where you can buy a thousand-dollar pearl. Nobody died at Zuccotti. In McGolrick Park, just across the river in Brooklyn, a 40-year old homeless man hung himself on September 24, but nobody died in Zuccotti Park. The massacre radiates out into the streets.

3: CHOKE AND DUDES

It is extremely difficult to outnumber the people: the state, therefore, has to be smart. First, control access. In Tiananmen and Zuccotti, this is done with a nearly identical three-foot-high grille.

The grille can't stop anyone (“OPEN TO PUBLIC”), and it allows the technical fulfillment of the promise of the “people’s republic,” but it does provide a psychological barrier. Not all people—especially people who live in a nation where so much is possessed by so few—not all people are dissuaded by the presence of the barrier, especially one that just begs to be stepped over. But the minority who step over are easy to watch, and therefore easy to prevent from stepping over any of the other ideological and legal barriers erected in the path of citizens who want to improve their government. Who watches the citizen? The dudes do.

Camped out at the choke-point that opens onto Zuccotti, dressed maybe a little bit like cleaning people, but obviously not there to clean. In Tiananmen in October, a man with the family name Wang burned himself to death over the injustice of his republic's legal system. We don't know much more about him, and I know why: the minute something undesirable started happening in the square, the guy on the left in the picture above (and I mean his doppelganger in the PRC) rushed the closest camera. The fit-looking guy in the back threw himself at or on top of Mr. Wang; the one on the right called for backup; the one closest to the camera closed off the choke point. That is how four dudes and a bunch of grates can turn the beginning of a revolution into a rumor.

4: AM I INSINUATING THAT PHYSICS AND SCALE ARE THE SAME THING

No I am not. Tiananmen is a dozen times the size of Zuccotti, it was filled with many times more people, its occupation was broken with far greater force, the grievances of its occupiers were grander, their sacrifices deeper. Tiananmen protestors lived under a government that makes a considerably smaller attempt to represent its people. What Tiananmen the place and Tiananmen the protest do not have in common with Zuccotti the place and Zuccotti the occupation is: scale. Compare prison for a day and prison for three years, five years, ten. Think about a nineteen-year-old loaded into a police cruiser and disappearing forever.

But the laws of physics don’t usually change in response to changes in scale—planets and baseballs have a surprising amount in common. So when we saw the artificial hush and the physical cancellation of Zuccotti, when we saw the crime scene tape put up around the location of the General Assembly, we knew something about the tools at work, even if they might be small. We know these tools by the marks they leave.

4: ERSATZ FESTIVENESS

One thing that Tiananmen has in spades—and that the bored dudes who have re-occupied Zuccotti would probably dearly love—is recreation. Tiananmen has rollerskating, kite flying, domestic tourists covered with cameras and sun parasols, and kids scramming around in endless hopeful circles. It has been many years since the massacre and that’s plenty of time to reassert the fiction that the republic is wholly owned by its people, or at least that the people’s square in the center of the capital is in fact something intended for the people. The government wants you to play; to frolic in the heart of the state, demonstrating your ease inside it and your support for it.

This is not an easy task to fulfill. For weeks after the massacre, citizens who had taken rifles from the army used them to shoot unsuspecting police and military officers. People were terrified: families were waiting for the knock on the door. Tiananmen was locked down tight. Standing on it would have felt like standing on the moon. This is a large-scale version of the creepiness that accrued around the Zuccotti Park Christmas tree:

What keeps the people happy? Rollerskating? Christmas? Great. The owners of the republic love to simulate happy festivals of the people. Every morning at dawn, an honor guard raises the Chinese national flag over Tiananmen. It’s a hell of a show.

5: NOBODY’S HOME

This was a weapon: give ideas the seriousness and reality of the most basic things. Make your politics, and your protest, into your home.

The feeling of loss in Zuccotti at Christmas was the scar of the use of that weapon. This place was marked. It was empty, but at least that meant it was empty of something.

6: LIPS PULLED BACK OVER TEETH

The square was quiet as we walked its length. There was an abandoned loaf of bread on a bench, an offering to the People’s Kitchen that would shortly be disposed of, like the fruit and wine that used to appear at Tiananmen. Both are offerings to the people who were lost in pursuit of a better way to live together—and those that died in and from the imperfections in the system that we all want to improve. Sometimes I meet people that were there at the protest in China in 1989 (they tend to be about 45, now) and they talk about it with what I once interpreted as a kind of wince. There was so much promise. We were so young. They curl their lips and bare their incisors, their canines. I thought it was an expression of regret, or at least a kind of embarrassment that nothing changed, but I was wrong. They show their teeth. They are still here, they ripped the veil from your eyes and my eyes and some of them survived the process. Go ahead and stamp on a space: cancel it, snip its bits. There is a lot of space in the world, and there are an awful lot of us. Oakland, Hong Kong, Portland, Wukan, Philadelphia, Capitol Hill. Draw the fences anywhere you like: until you truly become the representatives of the people you claim to serve, the side you’re on is going to get smaller every day.

7. ON FOLK TRADITION

In some ways, Tiananmen started when masses of Chinese citizens came to the square to memorialize the death of Hu Yaobang, a reform-minded leader who was greatly popular. It is traditional in China to express political desires by remembering a good leader who died: every year at the Duanwu festival, people hold boat races to reenact the search for the corpse of a good official who had been driven to suicide by his misguided king.

On January 11, the grates came down and Zuccotti opened again to 24-hour entry, as required by law. American citizens and engaged non-citizens are gathering every day to engage in the traditional cultural practices of our people: free assembly, spirited public debate, speaking truth to power, and the search for shared ideals with which to unite those of disparate backgrounds.

In the end, it is the people who will determine the use of our space. All these fine negotiations, all the grates and dudes, can you hold a sign or sleep on the ground, the counteroffers of Christmas trees and rollerskating, the Chinese government’s humiliated refusal to talk about Tiananmen and the US government’s ambivalent shuttling between destroying, regulating and permitting Occupy protests—all this indicates that it is we who define the meaning of a city park, the meaning of a space, the meaning of a nation. They can argue with that meaning, ignore it, outlaw it, or simply remain silent, but because the people are both author and audience, governor and governed, as we work and struggle over time our demands become our identity, and our identity becomes our nation.

We are making that identity today. The place—the stones, the concrete, the little inset lights in the ground—change daily. What other undertaking preoccupies you in a more important way than this? Other than making our community mean something, what could you possibly rather be doing?

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