Notes from the Periphery

Barbara Adams
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This morning I woke up and, after making coffee and checking email, I went to Facebook. There were a number of posts from people expressing sadness over the death of Steve Jobs and there were a number of posts from yesterday’s protest as part of Occupy Wall Street. The odd thing is that these posts were from the same people. The fact that someone can simultaneously critique corporate culture and laud the innovation at Apple is not as strange as it might at first appear.

As much as the movement might seem dualistic—‘them’ (the 1%) versus ‘us’ (the 99%)—there is an effort to avoid binaries and their oversimplification of identities and values. By not packaging the demands or branding the effort, the protesters have created an opening. What began as a small crack is being pried wider and wider each day. This lack of closure—no end goal, no time frame, no limit on who might participate—is enticing in the way that small opening in a construction wall offers a glimpse into what’s being built inside.

There is clearly something under construction and people want to see what it is. When I questioned people milling around the square over the course of a few days, most told me they came because they “wanted to see.” One participant told me she came to see for herself on the first Monday of the occupation and has returned every day since that first visit. She, like many, envisions herself as part of the periphery. She chats with people, she listens, she marches, but she doesn’t perceive herself as part of the action—she sees herself as someone who supports the real activists. This was perhaps the most intriguing theme that emerged from the discussions I had with people—that many don’t feel like equal participants—rather, they understand that there is a core group and a surrounding periphery. The language conveyed this clearly and there was consistency in how these people identified themselves as “supporters” rather than full-fledged actors.

This periphery sees the core as those people who are sleeping in the square, speaking at assemblies, facilitating committees, and regularly interfacing with the media. Based on the limited conversations I had, there seem to be a few different reasons for distancing one’s self. For some, this is a learning period. They are waiting. For now, these people are content to just be present and watch. Certainly they do more than watch—they help out when needed in the day to day functions of the square, they march and participate in the larger events—yet, they are waiting until they are comfortable with the protocol, language, and new types of personalities (one young woman’s description) they encounter. For others, they feel like activists from another time and place. These people were active on campaigns with a sharper focus than this movement and engaged in resistance with a clear ‘enemy’ with the belief that issue-by-issue, action-by-action, the world could change. They are not naïve. These activists know that today they confront a hydra, a chimera—not a lone dragon to slay. Because they recognize this, they know the tactics need editing, updating. These people are on the periphery as they weigh and assess their knowledge alongside the practices being deployed at the occupation. Again, there is a waiting period. A third group on the periphery is comprised of people who are trying to decide if they agree—either with content or with process and in some cases, both. These people are reluctant to fully commit because they are ambivalent. What is interesting is that many of these people are not necessarily concerned about deciding one way or the other—they are content to remain undecided. A number of people told me they need not negotiate their position with the larger group, instead choosing to engage only from a distance and when comfortable.

Through observation I witnessed the assumption that people are aware of protocols and methods of communication and organization practiced by the group. This was visible at the square, on the march over the Brooklyn Bridge and at the march in alliance with the unions. However, what is interesting is that this did not seem to alienate people. I saw evidence to the contrary. When people were confused or unclear what was happening, they asked strangers. Throwing people into this setting and assuming competence seemed to make that ‘competence’ (for lack of a better word) happen.

It is certainly the case that the occupation is a constellation. The infrastructural layout and structural organization of meetings and activities attests to this. However, this constellation is overlaid with concentric zones—a core, a periphery and, perhaps, a semi-periphery. How people are assembled is blurrier than any model. For instance, during the day at the square you see almost as many people with notebooks, cameras, microphones, clipboards, questionnaires, and so forth, as people without. The lines here are fuzzy. A student working on a research project is also part of the action. Some journalists I spoke to consider themselves professionals reporting on the occupation while also participants. The researchers and reporters are not objective bystanders, but are often subjective allies and actors. Some of my students confirm this, as does the testimony of a group of (mostly European) journalists with whom I spoke.

I had some exchange with members of the Spanish contingency. They began meeting for assemblies in May to discuss how to internationalize what was happening in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities in Spain. Their group joined forces with Greek activists, 16 Beaver, the May 12 movement, Bloombergville participants, and other groups in August. This initial group, according to one participant, “melted” into the larger group and was one of the seeds that sprouted into the resulting occupation.

A couple of days ago around lunchtime, I ran into my friend Wendy. She was at the square with a group of community college students in one of her sociology classes. After chatting with Michael Moore and encouraging her students to mingle, she left for her other job. As she walked away I heard her say, “Now I’m gonna go get something to eat and really be a part of this.”

Yesterday at the march with the unions and students, a man approached a friend and me. He said, “Glad to see you smiling. Seems the older folks are the only ones with a smile. The younger folks are so serious. They don’t know how long we’ve waited for something like this.”