In American politics, it’s usually conservatives, not liberals or left-wing folks, who are good at coming up with buzzwords and slogans that really stick in people’s minds, so it’s actually a bit surprising that the various “occupations” in cities around the US have managed to whip up the “We are the 99%” line or even the idea of “occupying” itself. Once I got past the catchiness of these labels, however, I started to wonder about the choice of the word “occupy.” What does it mean to occupy Wall Street, or any other location for that matter?
At first glance it’s a strange choice. The first sense of “occupation” that comes to my mind is a military one. Germany occupied northern France in World War II, for instance, and the United States began an occupation of Iraq in mid-2003. Occupations generally aren’t popular among the folks being occupied, and in general it seems better to avoid occupying someplace when you can. So why did the protestors choose this negatively charged word to name themselves?
Most likely they wanted to invoke the militancy of a military occupation and perhaps even invert it. Many OWS participants may see themselves not as a conquering power oppressing the poor little Wall Street bankers, but rather as victims of financial crimes. They occupy Wall Street in order to demand justice for these wrongs. The occupation also allows them to take a space (in the case of NYC, Zuccotti Park) and redefine it, turning it into communal space in which to organize and build a spirit of solidarity.
But there’s another, simpler meaning of occupy that I think is also important. “Occupying” can simply refer to taking up space, the way that bananas occupy a spot on my counter. I think it’s important to understand the Occupy movement through this lens as well. Occupy protestors are simply taking up space wherever they happen to be, but by doing so they demand our attention. A common demand from occupiers is simply that they no longer be ignored, that their voices be heard. It seems to me that in an important sense, one of the Occupy movement’s concrete, explicitly articulated goals (considered to be in such short supply by its critics) is simply to refocus attention on the struggles and voices of the self-proclaimed 99%.
(Photo by Mary Kosta under a Creative Commons license)