Walking the Tightrope
I’m in a warmly lit apartment on the Lower East Side. It’s a cool night in early October of 2011, the height of Occupy Wall Street.
What a fucking whirlwind it’s been. Two months ago I had just moved into my parents’ basement, feeling deflated after the end of Bloombergville (a two-week street occupation outside city hall to try to stop the massive budget cuts of that same year), convinced this country wasn’t ready for movement. Now I’m in this living room with some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, at the shaky helm of a movement that has become part of the mainstream’s daily consciousness. It’s my first time feeling like the Left is more than a scrawny sideshow, and it’s surreal. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a believer until I was caught up in the mass arrests on September 24th, until Troy Davis was murdered by the State of Georgia and I felt the connection in my body, until more people came down and gave it legs. But now it’s real. The rush of rapidly growing numbers, recognition from other political actors, and increasing popular support and media acclaim is electric and overwhelming. It feels a bit like walking a tightrope.
I’m a leader, and people know it, but no one says it. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not the only leader, of course — there are many. In this room, we’re a wide range of people. Some of the folks go back to the Global Justice Movement, but most of us have met in the middle of the whirlwind, building the kinds of relationships you can only build in crisis or struggle. Some of the room is seasoned and experienced, some very new to this type of thing, but all of us have demonstrated leadership early on (some before the thing even really started) and come in with lots of relationships. Between us we lead a number of working groups, drive some of the major mass actions, play formative roles in much of the media being pumped out, and more.
The meetings are closed, and we all feel kind of bad about it, although this is another thing we don’t talk about often. There isn’t much coherence to how we ended up here in the first place — one person invited a few over and the next invited a couple and so on, until the room was full. It was as arbitrary a time to stop inviting people as any, but this is how things often happen in movement moments. We justify the boundary by reminding ourselves that we are certainly not the only collection of people meeting like this — there are many affinity groups and other kinds of formations — and that we are here to plan and strategize, not to make decisions.
But we also know that there are a lot of movers and shakers in the room, and that this affords us a disproportionate ability to move things through the rest of Occupy. We know the age-old pitfalls of people making plans in closed off rooms, and it’s not lost on us that — while this space is also led by some of the most powerful women and folks of color in the movement — most of us are white, middle class, and male. If someone had asked any one of us directly, we’d likely have agreed that, collectively, we have quite a bit of power and aren’t being held accountable to it.