Bruce Reyes-Chow: Latifundialization and the Future of Occupy Wall Street

This past weekend on the heels of the raid of the 101 California Occupy SF encampment, I and other members of the faith community attended a rally in support of the ongoing presence of Occupy San Francisco.  Held right in the middle of Market Street in front of the Federal Reserve Building, there was a large group gathered to rally, to sing and to listen to speakers from a wide variety of Occupy Wall Street Supporters. There were supporterss from the encampment as well as Supervisors Eric Mar and David Campos; Carol Been, from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice;  Dr. Vincent Harding, civil rights activist; Rev. John Fife, co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement; and Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, core leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.  The evening was topped of by an extended conversation with anti-war activist, Daniel Ellsberg.

If nothing else, being on location once again reminded me that we should never fully believe the sweeping generalizations made about any group without attempting to observe the group first hand. So much has been blown out of proportion or simply made up that I am not sure that anyone can get a true sense of an Occupy encampment without seeing it for themselves. As I made my way around the tents, talked with folks and observed the hustle and bustle of the encampment, there were certainly some things that have been said about Occupy San Francisco that are simply untrue.  Below I offer a few of the myths that are circulating about Occupy San Francisco and then I'll get to the whole latifundialzation thing.

  • MYTH #1 - Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless movement.
    While there is great questioning about the merits of this movement because it is "leaderless" there are clearly people who are playing a leadership role: organizing, policing, motivating, etc. On more than one occasion I saw folks taking it upon themselves to do everything from making sure the crowd was respectful to the speakers to negotiating with the police to organizing the community. It may not look like the type of leadership that many of us are used to, but it is there.
  • MYTH#2 - The police are only interested in beating the crap out of Occupiers.
    The police are extremely patient. Yes, there are certainly some cops who let power go to their heads and use excessive force, but I could also point to a number of knuckleheads in the crowd for whom taunting and provoking the police at every opportunity seems to be priority number one. After one Occupier was jawing at a cop with profanity-laced taunts for over an hour, I kinda wanted to smack him, so I know the officer was exercising great restraint. From personal experience, and from what we have seen on the news, I would bet that the SFPD handles protests and civil disobedience far better than most other cities. As public servants, even amidst a barrage of obscenities and gestures, they bear the brunt of self-restraint and discipline and I am thankful for their ability to do so. While the police and government officials must be held accountable for their action, it is vital for all who support Occupy Wall Street to remember that the police are part of the 99% too.
  • MYTH#3 - Everyone who is part of Occupy Wall Street is a lazy, unemployed, smelly, homeless scalawag!
    Okay maybe the media has not been using the term "scalawag" all that much, but you get what I mean. Yes, there are a good number of homeless folks taking part in the encampments and I am sure that not everyone has the work ethic and determination of Rocky Balboa, but, please . . . If you talk with folks who are both living there as well as those who count themselves as part of the movement, buying into the whole "lazy hippie" dispersion, is pretty lazy in itself. Just as Tea Party folks resented being labeledas racist, homophobic, misogynistic, backwoods bigots because of the actions of a small number of their crew, we must be careful not to do the same even if there does happen to be a stinky slacker or two in the mix.

The Latifundialization factor . . .

Far from being an academic, one of the multisyllabic concepts that I do remember from my seminary training is latifundialization or the practice of accumulating land as a statement of power.Latifundialization takes place throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and signaled a shift in economic realties and the distribution of wealth.

That does not sound familiar AT ALL  ;-)

There is something profound about the nature of land and space in movements that have taken place across the generations. From being able to sit at a lunch counter of one's own choosing to the owning of ones farming land, generation after generation across the world have found land and space crucial to the impact of any movement for social change. Today, just as in Biblical times, controlling land and space operates as a measure and statement of power.  Sure, technology and social media connects people like never before, but at some point real live human beings must be the first to claim a seat at the front of the bus, stand up against unjust housing policies and/or attempt to reclaim space that has been unjustly taken from them.  It should be no surprise that the actions of Occupy Wall Street have resulted in such violent responses by those who have been tasked with the governance of space, for if an Occupy encampment is allowed to hold onto that space, then there is a de-facto shift in power and control.

So while the battles over space still rage in cities around the word, Occupiers and supporters must begin to see a way forward in order to occupy the institutional land that is at the core of our social and economic disparities.  If the sacrifices that so many have made in these early actions are to have meaning, at some point Occupy Wall Street must create a shift in power that reaches beyond the geography of public parks and sidewalks and into the depths our social and economic heart and soul. If this is not done, then the movement runs the risk of no longer being the catalyst for transformation and could become a distraction from the transformation that needs to happen.

Herein ends the sharing of my thoughts born of my most recent Occupy San Francisco experience. No matter where you are or what you believe is happening, I urge you to take a stroll down do your local Occupy Wall Street encampment and see for yourself. . . because if you haven't noticed, they are everywhere.

[Taken with permission from Bruce's blog, originally posted 11/22/11.]