Meet Occupy Wall Street’s ‘outside agitators’

    Photo from Occupy Auckland, New Zealand, by Simon Oosterman.

    If you ask most people who’ve been watching from the sidelines what the Occupy movement has accomplished, they’ll probably say something about “changing the national conversation.” But if you ask someone who has been more closely involved, having spent weeks or months in tents and meetings, they’re more likely to talk about a conversation that changed them—a case in which a painful disagreement, perhaps, was forced by the proximity of the occupation to turn into a useful dialogue.

    In the days before Chris Hedges’ polemic against “The Cancer in Occupy” created a firestorm in the movement by stoking fears of “Black Bloc anarchists” hijacking it from the outside, we lit a bit of kindling here on this site with a post of mine about rising tensions around the diversity-of-tactics framework. My report spread through Occupy Wall Street email lists, resulting in an extended exchange in the comments that included several of the people I’d written about. Like most exchanges in online comments, it wasn’t especially constructive.

    A few weeks later, as nerves calmed, three of us who’d been involved in that exchange decided to sit down together in person, on a bench in New York’s Washington Square Park. Suzahn Ebrahimian and Sparrow Ingersoll have been among the most vocal and respected advocates of anarchist ideas in Occupy Wall Street’s Direct Action Working Group. For this, they have increasingly been isolated and accused of advocating violence, even while training others in nonviolent tactics. They believe that, in the whole recent debate, worries of mostly-imaginary violence are turning people’s attention away from the real violence that has persisted in the movement.

    Nathan: I’m curious to know, to start, why you wanted to meet with me together rather than separately. It seemed like there was some consensing going on in the background.

    Sparrow: Because this is part of a larger relationship, slash event, slash conversation, and we feel really strongly against speaking on behalf of each other.

    Suzahn: Yeah, that makes sense.

    Nathan: Have you known one another for a long time?

    Suzahn: I was around since the first day of the occupation at Liberty Square, and then Sparrow showed up—

    Sparrow: The second week.

    Suzahn: So not for very long. That’s like five months.

    Nathan: Sparrow, you weren’t around for the first week of the occupation?

    Sparrow: I wasn’t really involved, but I was around. I was observing, because I was super skeptical of it. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put any energy into that situation. When Suzahn says that I showed up, what they mean is that I came to a Direct Action meeting and immediately volunteered to do a training about hard-locks.

    Suzahn: That’s right! Once Sparrow came into my life—

    Sparrow: I came into existence. I acquired physicality on that day!

    Nathan: When you showed up and offered to do a training on hard-locks, what kind of experience were you drawing from in years past?

    Sparrow: My mom was an anti-racist and anti-KKK organizer in the Midwest when I was growing up. She also did a lot of stuff around poverty and mutual aid. I have been doing organizing of various kinds since I was about 13. The work I did for farm-worker rights was really important to me, personally. So were some of the things that I did when I was younger, like the harm-reduction network that my sister and I started at our high school.

    Nathan: Where did you learn hard-locks?

    Sparrow: Oh, you know—hangin’ out. Stuff comes up.

    Nathan: How about you Suzahn?

    Suzahn: Where did I learn hard-locks? Greenpeace—a totally nonviolent organization, which was my first official foray into radicalism. It’s definitely not where I stopped. At this point, I’ve moved beyond NGOs completely, and I’ve felt that their perception of nonviolence was in order to protect their corporate image, which turned me off a lot. But as far as life experiences, my father is an immigrant from Iran, so that has played a huge part in my awareness of and interactions with the state. I’ve encountered definite roadblocks in front of things that I need as a human being. For example, going to my grandmother’s funeral in Iran was something that my father couldn’t do, and that I couldn’t do, because of the Patriot Act and sanctions and certain really, really oppressive legislation in our society. I’ve spent a lot of time organizing in other capacities, but I would say experiences like that have pushed me very far in the past ten years or so.

    Nathan: And you identify as an anarchist?

    Suzahn: I guess so. That’s really complicated for me, though. My personal assessment is that I have to identify as an anarchist. Based on my existence in society as is, if I don’t want to identify with anything that’s presented to me, I have to call myself the “anti,” which isn’t necessarily the position that I want to be in. I would like to say that I am just a human being, and that I require the same things every other human being requires. But I guess that because of the world we live in, I have to say “anarchist.”

    Sparrow: I’m also sort of uncomfortable with the label “anarchist”—but not because I think it’s stigmatizing in any way, which I think is asinine, but because I don’t feel like it accurately represents my political analysis. In particular, I don’t believe in a positive program.

    Nathan: Can you explain what you mean when you say that you don’t believe in a positive program?

    Sparrow: I don’t believe that we’re in a position to say, if we’re able to overturn capitalism or the state, what would come next, because we’ve been diseased by those power systems. I have the disease of capitalism. So I am in no position to tell anyone else what that world without it would look like or how it should work because I don’t know. I don’t think we’re actually in any position to say that. We can imagine forward and hope and think creatively about what that might look like, but I think to reify it in any sort of program is a really terrible idea.

    Suzahn: The nature of resistance, anyway, means that you’re constantly changing your surroundings and the political landscape around you, so having a really set, dogmatic vision of the future that you’re working towards will become obsolete, and then you’re just imposing your worldview onto those around you, which is exactly the same situation that we were in before.

    Nathan: Often, words like “positive program” are used to describe what you do in the meantime—direct action in the sense of mutual aid and alternative institutions. What do you think can be done now in order to move toward a less oppressive society? Are there certain things that you’re doing or that excite you particularly?

    Sparrow: I’m working on the childcare collective for Occupy. That was named as a very concrete need and a very obvious barrier to lots of people doing the sorts of organizing that they want to do, or to being as involved as they’d want to be, or to participating in actions and events. I like mutual aid because any distance between ourselves and the state is good. One of the reasons that the park was so dangerous was that, by feeding 1,500 people per day and providing health care to anyone who wanted it, we were also posing an unanswerable question to the state: “Hey, state, why can’t you do this? You, with all of your resources and millions and millions of dollars, why can’t you feed everyone?” Whereas we, a group of poor people, who were actually fairly disorganized and kind of had our heads up our asses, can pull it together and feed 1,500 people three meals a day. That’s a really dangerous question to ask the state, because it invalidates it. But as far as creating a new world through mutual aid programs, or being an echo of a world we would like to see, that idea is a little bit complicated. It’s always a direct response to the world we live in right now, and not a thing unto itself. It therefore contains the world we live in right now and doesn’t make any sense outside of that context. Anyway, it’s good. I think we should do it, and we’ll continue to do it. But I don’t think that it constitutes a program for a new world. Necessarily.

    Suzahn: I would say that even in the park we didn’t achieve mutual aid, because we were going off of what I’ve been thinking of as the gift-giver economy—which is closer to welfare than anything else, rather than people taking it upon themselves or feeling empowered to get those things themselves. That’s a problem primarily because we’re all poor, because we’re living in a capitalist system, so we depended upon donations.

    Nathan: On to recent events. Can you narrate for me what the debates of the past few weeks have felt like for you, especially since the January 28 action in Oakland and the Chris Hedges article?

    Suzahn: Actually, it has been since the beginning. I was part of Direct Action when it was first forming, and on day three of the occupation we consensed that we would work on the diversity-of-tactics framework. And it was fine. It made sense to people, but it was a relatively small occupation at that point, and the General Assembly was actually functional. But it has always been a constant struggle after that—before actions, reminding people that we work on this diversity-of-tactics framework. It really came out just before N17, for instance. Before major days of action, we’d have to be prepared to have this discussion. At every single nonviolence training we’d have to be prepared to have this discussion. It was almost something we had to arm ourselves for—no pun intended, I guess, of militancy—to talk about what it means to use nonviolent direct action, as opposed to nonviolence as a framework for everything we do. As more people came into Occupy, we were working with a lot of people who were not activists and brought a very pop-historical understanding of social justice movements into spaces of real organizing and resistance. It was difficult to work with. And then Oakland came about. What day was that?

    Nathan: I think it was January 28.

    Sparrow: Yeah. Oakland has been sparking a number of debates. One is about solidarity: What is solidarity? Are we in solidarity with militant actions that we would not do ourselves? And I guess it just reached a head. This was also in direct response to the manipulative strategies of Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan and other state organizations—

    Suzahn: Asking us to disown Oakland.

    Sparrow: Quite frankly, I view every article that has come out—Chris Hedges, and Rebecca Solnit to a slightly lesser degree, but in other ways more insidiously in my opinion—as playing into that strategy of divide-and-conquer, where we are pitted against each other and put in the position of having to reaffirm the solidarity that we have taken for granted. We’re made to be accountable for the actions of people that we don’t even know because we support their overall struggle. Also, we’re wasting our time on constantly bickering about whether or not Oakland should have brought shields while they were being shot with flash bang grenades.

    Suzahn: As if we’ve never used shields before.

    Sparrow: Yes, on several occasions.

    Suzahn: And nobody had a problem with it.

    Sparrow: That narrative, first of all, is incredibly statist. It reaffirms state power. It is allowing the state to set our agenda for us. It is allowing the state to manipulate us and tell us who our friends are and are not. Let me tell you, I don’t give a fuck who Jean Quan thinks my friends are, because Jean Quan is not my friend. It also in many ways erases the real conversation that we should be having, which is that the police are brutalizing people. Every single day. Not just in the context of Occupy, the police brutalize people constantly. And, by talking about whether or not Oakland should have brought shields to this march is absurd in the extreme. We should be talking about the fact that they were being shot at in the first place.

    Suzahn: Is violence what you’re seeing right in front of your face, that you can identify as a violent action—like throwing something back at a cop? Or is it the fact that cops exist in the first place? I feel like we haven’t had space to have that conversation here, other than the ones we’ve tried to create, and we’ve been attacked and subverted over and over again, however many times we have that conversation.

    Sparrow: Or attempt to.

    Suzahn: You know that scene in Jurassic Park—I’m sorry, I’m going to use this as an analogy.

    Sparrow: Go for it.

    Suzahn: You know that scene in Jurassic Park where they’re in the lab or something—I don’t know what they’re doing—and one of the scientists stops and is like, “People are dying! People are dying! Get it together!” That’s how I feel when I’m dragged repeatedly into this debate. Really? We really have to talk about this right now? There are more important things that we could be having meaningful discussions about.

    Sparrow: There is a really horrible, toxic, bullshit thing that’s happening, but it’s not throwing a tear gas canister back at the cops. It’s Chris Hedges and Rebecca Solnit and others writing about people that they don’t know who use tactics that they don’t approve of and calling those people a cancer and demanding that they leave the movement. And the anarchist witch hunt that is constant at Occupy at this point. That is the cancer in this movement.

    Suzahn: To me it really indicates a shallow lack of history of social justice movements, or movements in general. This is a really common tactic: bash the anarchists, or blame outsiders. After the 1960s race riots, for example, one of the main ways that the government tried to say that these riots were irrelevant—that they weren’t historical, that they weren’t justified expressions of rage—was blaming outside agitators. It just takes a very cursory look at the history of social justice movements that have been totally cleaved apart by the state to understand what’s happening now. And it’s really upsetting. That’s why I resist having the conversation as it is being presented to us, because it forces me to be on a side of a debate that I think is divisive.

    Nathan: How has the online debate played out, for you, in meetings and among people that you’re encountering face to face? It seems that a lot of people were hurt in a personal way, were having personal interactions poisoned by this.

    Suzahn: It’s incredible to me that when I have this conversation with people who have not read the Hedges article and are not aware of the debate, they are very open and receptive to just having a conversation. And frequently the conversation would end with, “I don’t think I would do x, y and z, but I could see why someone might do it. I don’t think I would tell them one way or another that it was wrong.” That’s how most of the conversations ended. But if I do have a conversation with someone who has read the Chris Hedges article, or even David Graeber’s article—though most of the things in there I supported—it’s really difficult because all of a sudden you’re in a predetermined framework that forces people to choose sides, and that’s inherently antagonistic. Even if you’re on the same side (quote-unquote “same side”—I’m even talking about it like that, using that framework now!) it’s still unhealthy and antagonistic to think about this very complex issue that way. I know for a fact that people don’t like me who might have liked me before, because of this. And half of it is because I just refuse to talk about it in the way that’s presented to me, because I just name it as what it is: it’s oppressive to try to fit me into that framework. I think people are confused by that and don’t want to pursue the conversation further.

    Sparrow: I have definitely had interactions get f-ed up by this. I’ve been harassed. I’ve had people confront me, and been physically accosted, and been told to leave the movement on multiple occasions by multiple people. They say I’m ruining their movement, which is bizarre, because I’ve been involved in every major action that has been planned by Occupy Wall Street in some capacity, and I helped to create one of the most functional decision-making bodies that the movement in New York has. I’ve worked really hard. While I don’t think that entitles me to anything in terms of what the movement does next any more than anyone else, to be told that this work not only is invisible but is unwelcome is really hurtful. And then, if you look at who is saying what, I think what’s happening here should be very apparent. One group of people is saying, “Hey, I think that we can work together and respect that we might be making different choices at different points, and that’s okay because we can still work together on some stuff,” and other people are saying, “Get the fuck out of my movement, you’re worthless.” Who’s saying what? I think that, again, it’s an entirely false question. It is a false, manipulative question designed to divide the movement and stop us from working on what we need to be working on. Because nonviolent strategies are encapsulated in a diversity-of-tactics framework. Entirely.

    Suzahn: And they’re totally legitimate and necessary in a lot of situations.

    Sparrow: A diversity-of-tactics framework just says, “Let’s have a conversation that’s critical about what we’re doing, and also respect that other people in other places need to make different choices.” That’s it. It’s a position of compromise. It’s not demanding a totalizing strategy, or demanding that everyone have the same opinion about anything—but it’s treated as a full-frontal attack against liberals. It’s absurd. This was actually designed so that we can work together. That’s what this framework was created to do: to enable liberals and reformists and radicals to work together.

    Suzahn: Last night, for example, during the Spokes Council, we consensed upon a community agreement—five months into it! Part of it was included a pledge to be “nonviolent,” but we asked that it be changed to “nonviolent towards each other.” The fear was that it could be used as a way to police people who might not fit in into somebody’s conception of a framework of nonviolence—because that’s ambiguous enough as it is—to give some people the platform to stand upon and wield the sword of nonviolence. That was terrifying to some people, especially in the Direct Action Working Group, which gets blamed for anything anybody does at any action, no matter who they are, and whether we planned it or not. We felt that agreeing to this could make us totally alienated and exiled, regardless of how we feel about nonviolence. That’s not even what we’re talking about. But then somebody blocked that amendment, saying, “Well, does that mean that, for example, the anarchists and Direct Action folks are going to be totally violent when not in an OWS space?” What?

    Sparrow: As if that’s a thing that the movement can consense on. What I do on my own time is my own business.

    Suzahn: Not only that—the dichotomy just isn’t there! It’s not where we’re at. Nobody is talking about going out and being violent.

    Nathan: Have you been tempted to leave the movement because of this stuff?

    Suzahn & Sparrow: Yes.

    Suzahn: I’ve been seriously considering it every day for the past—I don’t know—three weeks, four weeks.

    Sparrow: I am definitely, at the very least, dramatically changing the way that I interact with the movement.

    Nathan: In the last few months, how much of your time has been going into Occupy Wall Street?

    Sparrow: Ungodly amounts. Like, all of my time, essentially. Even when I’m at work.

    Suzahn: Yeah, I’m so burned out.

    Sparrow: I’m not interested in being constantly attacked for working my ass off. I’m not sure what that means or what I’ll be doing.

    Suzahn: It’s shitty to feel so alienated. I woke up the morning of September 18 and felt so invested and got right to work. I literally changed my entire life—like almost everybody else who was there that day. To feel pushed out like this is so crappy. But that’s what I feel when I’m at meetings. I actually feel like I can’t sit through most meetings now, because this issue will be guaranteed to come up. I don’t want to be constantly feeling antagonized. Now, people expect me to be antagonistic, and I don’t want to be that way.

    Sparrow: It’s just exhausting and stupid and a waste of my time. It’s a waste of my time to sit there and be constantly, constantly having the same fight with the same people, over and over and over again, when it’s so clear that what’s happening is that I’m just not being listened to.

    Nathan: At the same time, I’ve been hearing a frustration among lots of organizers that the people who are being pushed out are the people whose voices are really shaping the movement and keeping it honest, who are sticking to positions that are at the heart of a lot of the structures and institutions that make the movement what it is. There’s a lot gratitude that maybe you’re not hearing enough of for the witness you’ve borne.

    Suzahn: That’s good to hear.

    Sparrow: That’s… good. It’d be nice to not be accused of, like, advocating for murder during the Spokes Council. As has happened.

    Suzahn: I know that people in Direct Action who have experience and are anarchists feel pretty much the same way as we feel now. They’re the ones with knowledge of nonviolent direct action, and they’ve put it into practice over and over again—

    Sparrow: And who have trained everyone else in the movement how to use it, thank you very much.

    Suzahn: Yeah. We’ve been running trainings, and—I mean, I just want to keep doing that work. I don’t need any credit. I just want to keep doing it, but not compromise my beliefs and who I am and what I feel and the reason that I’m there. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Unfortunately a lot of the people who feel appreciative, I find, are those who agree with me, which is really great, but I’d really like it if people could start agreeing to disagree. That’s one of the principles of nonviolence and direct action; sometimes you have to agree to disagree. I don’t like disliking people, you know. It doesn’t make me feel good.

    Nathan: What do you think is a more constructive way to go forward and get out of this mud?

    Suzahn: I feel really nostalgic for the park lately. That was where we had no choice but to work together, and I think the most growth happened there. I hope for a situation like May Day, or perhaps a reoccupation. Or—maybe this is crazy—perhaps the movement needs to fracture a bit. Maybe that needs to happen for a time. I actually don’t see that as an issue, if we keep talking to each other and keep in touch, understanding that people have different issues to work on and need different spaces in which to do so.

    Sparrow: I’m actually fine with the idea that we might need to fracture in some fashion. I actually prefer the language of “divergence” rather than “fracture.”

    Suzahn: Yeah.

    Sparrow: Which has kind of happened anyway. Like, I have no idea what the Sustainability Working Group is doing right now. It’s not because I don’t care, it’s just that they’re a different community of people working on different sorts of things, and that’s totally fine. I also think that we need to stop imagining, first of all, that Occupy Wall Street is the Occupy movement, and gets to speak on behalf of the movement as a whole, which is not true at all. Also, the GA should not be taking positions on much of anything. That’s not what it’s for.

    Suzahn: It’s a way for us to organize ourselves.

    Sparrow: It’s a way to have a conversation. But the GA should not be used to didactically tell people what they think about things.

    Nathan: And it’s not a legislative body.

    Sparrow: Which is why it’s stupid and so hard to navigate and not particularly functional right now, because people try to use it as this legislative body that hands-down dictates, rather than as a conversational tool. But I don’t know how likely that is, because there’s so much animosity right now. I know that I’m beefing pretty hard. I’m really angry at some people, and I’ll own that.

    Suzahn: Me too.

    Sparrow: It’s hard for me to not feel disrespected and attacked and want not to have anything to do with those people. Because I do feel so disrespected. I have been so disrespected. And that’s hard.

    Suzahn: You know what I’d like to see that would be constructive? Some actual internal anti-oppression work, rather than this false conversation about violence within the movement. Because, when you think about it, we have never had an action that was more militant than taking the streets.

    Sparrow: No.

    Suzahn: Anything that people perceive as violent has been an individual’s actions, and we don’t all have to take responsibility for anything individuals do, ever. It has been so rare. On the other hand, I spent the first three months of the occupation talking to other female-assigned people who have been so hurt and have left the movement because of patriarchy and—and racism, I might add, and national privilege. All of those three things, especially in combination. People have left the movement because of that, and their voices are not being heard, and that is violence. For me, it would be constructive if we actually talked about the violence that does exist, and is happening and has happened and has actually hurt people and disenfranchised people, and hurt the movement because we lose those voices. That might be a constructive thing to start doing. I’d be willing to have that debate.

    Sparrow: It’s not even a debate. It’s like—

    Suzahn: It is for a lot of people.

    Nathan: To confront that violence might be harder than confronting imaginary violence.

    Suzahn: Yeah. It’s hard to hear people talk about violence when I and others have been reduced to tears because of how patriarchal OWS spaces have been. I mean, nobody made a big deal when the minutes for the Speak Easy Caucus were thrown on the ground in the rain because it wasn’t actually considered a valid group and its minutes were hand-written, and so the person who was supposed to upload the minutes said, “This is stupid” and threw them on the ground and destroyed the minutes—of a women’s and queer caucus. No one made a big deal about that.

    Sparrow: Or when the woman who was taking minutes at the Spokes Council we were both at got called a bitch from across the room? Nothing came of that.

    Suzahn: There was no Chris Hedges article.

    Sparrow: There was no reaction from the room. The only reaction came from Direct Action, and then she got up and left, and didn’t come back.

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