After being absolutely astounded at the collective engagement, energy, and forethought that I saw exhibited at the occupation of LA City Hall, I discovered that my very own small town (Riverside) was having a general assembly as a precursor to a future occupation of its own. Admittedly, I was quite skeptical when I first heard of it. In the grand scheme of things, this is a small town. It’s about as middle America as you can get while still being in California (well, not really–I’m exaggerating for effect–there are museums here and the people who live here are actually a quite diverse bunch and have been so for a long time). Let me summarize my initial doubts: Does it really make sense to have an occupation of a small town? Couldn’t the people in Riverside simply shuttle themselves 65 miles to LA and be part of that occupation? Wouldn’t their presence mean more in a dense urban setting like LA? I believe now that the answer to these last two questions is (as you’ve probably guessed): no!
Now let me try to explain why I believe that the occupation movement should spread itself geographically. There are probably a number of reasons why this makes good sense, but I’m going to focus on two. First: the media environment today is not what it was 10 or even 5 years ago. What do I mean by this? Well, it used to be that the mainstream media produced nearly the entirety of the news about the world that most people living in this country would encounter on a daily basis, and the mainstream media was almost exclusively produced by and for large urban areas. Arguably, today, social media has the potential to provide people with more of what they know about the world than they get from the mainstream media. True, at present, the majority of social media is but a recirculation of mainstream media stories. However, while we might not always use this capacity to its full effect, the fact is that today we do indeed have the technological infrastructure to circulate our own observations of what’s happening to us and the people that we see on a daily basis. After all, you’re reading this! True, there’s still a digital divide, but it’s less and less a geographic one (i.e., it’s still a racial and economic divide). All of this is to say that, when the only real media coverage you can get is through social and indie media–as has largely been true of the occupation movements thus far–where you reside on the globe matters less and less. While, I don’t see this fact as in and of itself sufficient to produce substantive social change, it helps!
Second reason. By making itself visible in towns across the country both small and large, the living occupation movement short circuits the geographic divisions in this country’s politics that have proven to be so incredibly decisive and so deeply divisive. So much of the politics of this country over the past 30 years has been determined by pitting urban communities against suburban, exurban, and rural communities. The story goes: Urban communities are primarily Democratic, educated, and disproportionately minority whereas sub-, exurban, and rural communities are primarily Republican, less educated, and disproportionately white. Urban communities expect things like the following from government: rent control, quality public transportation, and efficient and humane social services (police, fire, schools, libraries, etc.). On the other hand, sub-, exurban, and rural communities expect things like the following: quality roads, low taxes, home ownership, good (i.e., mostly white) schools, and the right to be left alone. For the longest time, we continued to feed into this divisive geographic politics, hardly noticing that the objective facts actually support these political divisions less and less. Even a commentator as otherwise ignorant as David Brooks has pointed out that suburbs (etc.) aren’t the places that they used to be! Suburbs are increasingly populated by “minorities” just as the country as a whole is. More and more people in suburbs don’t have cars and have no choice but to care about things like public transportation. Perhaps most relevantly of all to the present discussion: the majority of the private equity in homes that was lost during the current depression was lost in suburban areas. The American dream of owning your own beautiful home out in the (semi-)country (where you won’t have to be bothered with getting to know your neighbors) and driving 65 miles to work in the city is on its last legs. The vast majority of us simply can’t afford it anymore, esp. when gas is $4 a gallon. Is it any surprise then that young white people have suddenly rediscovered the big city as a place to live? Not really. Anyhow, the point is this: as cities become more suburban, the suburbs are becoming more urban. Accordingly, it’s time that our politics change to reflect this.
At present, I can imagine no better way of accomplishing this transformation than by participating in the living occupation movement in your own community, wherever you live. What better way is there of showing solidarity with your brothers and sisters catching hell in this economy than by showing that no matter where you live, people in YOUR community are hurting as a result of the greed of the rich and powerful! Go out, make yourselves and your lives visible! This movement has the potential to transcend the divisive (often race-based) geographic politics with which all of us are all too familiar. What can I say, I’m a little optimistic for once! For those of us all around the country without jobs (of which I am one), living occupation ought to become our new occupation! Occupy wherever you are!
Oh, and by the way, the actual facts on the ground of the Riverside general assembly looked very, very good. I saw a lot more people than I expected, a lot of people that I didn’t recognize (which is something I didn’t expect! and which tells you that people who were not already part of the political activist scene are coming out for this), a lot of mutual respect and humility, and heaps of energy among the young and old alike. Having a civic life is cool again! Who expected that three weeks ago?!