By Max Liboiron
It has been one week since the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, September 17, 2012. In celebration, let’s look at the movement through the lens of discard studies.
My article, “Tactics of Waste, Dirt and Discard in the Occupy Movement“, has just appeared in Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest (volume 11, no. 3) as part of a special edition on Occupy. The article will be a free download for the first two months after publication.
Originally, the article included a photo essay. In the spirit of Occupy, I sought Creative Commons permissions (CC-BY-NC) for photos that were not in the public domain or taken by news media– originally, the Occupy edition of the journal was going to be full open access. When they changed the terms to two months of open access, CC licenses were no longer valid. The current article has only three photos. Here is the entire photo essay of how trash and discards were used in Occupations all over the world, supplemented with excerpts from the original article. Note that some photos contain expletive and potentially offensive language and images.
Part 1: Anti-Occupy Tactics– Trashing Materials
At around 1 am on November 15th, 2011, police came into a tented Liberty Plaza and began handing out fliers. The fliers said Occupiers had to leave the park or face arrest. Shortly after Occupiers ran from tent to tent to spread the news of pending eviction and arrest, police began tearing down tents and putting them in dumpsters…. No one could return to the park to gather their belongings. In the end, everything in the park– clothes, books, tents, medications, backpacks, laptops, kitchen supplies and food– were put into a garbage truck and transported to a city sanitation transfer station.
In New York City and in other occupations, taxonomies of trash were used as a conscious effort to restrict access to space and to define and discipline protesters. Over and over, in different evictions, city governments and police demonstrated their belief that political gatherings such as Occupy are dangerous in their filth, regardless of material sanitary conditions. As Mary Douglas so eloquently puts it, “As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder” (1966: 2). And in the eyes of those in power, the essential nature of Occupy is disorder. It is dirt.
These images may seem exhaustive, even redundant. But that is the point: across the world, from New York to Paris to Melbourne, designating entire encampments as trash was a common tactic of municipal governments and their police forces. The ability to designate, and then forcibly treat, another group’s possessions as trash is a show of power, and is particularly ideological in nature.This is just not a case of clearing areas as efficiently as possible. Even objects of obvious worth, such as libraries, laptops, backpacks, and kitchen supplies, were indiscriminately trashed.
In the days after the New York City eviction, some Occupiers went to retrieve their belongings from the Sanitation station where police said they were “storing” them. The hundreds of books from the People’s Library were of particular concern. The books and other belongings had been compacted in the truck and dumped to the concrete floor, effectively destroying them. They had clearly been subject to identical treatment as regular trash.
Not only do the Mayor’s office, police and dominant media control the terms of public conversations about Occupy in terms of sanitation so Occupiers have to constantly demonstrate their cleanliness in public, but more importantly, such derogatory symbolism rests on a binary: clean and dirty, safe and dangerous, us and them. This is the contest between Bloomberg and his police, and New York City Occupiers. The Mayor and police work to make the Occupiers Other, and Occupiers strive to exercise their rights as citizens to assemble and protest. This contest is often fought in terms of filth and waste.
For example, before the eviction of Liberty Plaza, Mayor Bloomberg told Occupiers they would have to leave the park for cleaning. In response, the OWS Sanitation Working Group called for a park-wide, OWS-initiated clean up. Bloomberg had ruled that the Occupation was unsanitary and so the city would have to clean up after them, while OWS maintained that they were good citizens and took care of their space. Hundreds of protesters scrubbed Liberty Plaza until it sparkled and there was no possible material evidence of unsanitary conditions. The “cleaning eviction” was cancelled. When Liberty was raided one month later, Bloomberg claimed it was due to his mounting concern that “the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protestors and to the surrounding community.”
Part 2: Anti-Occupy Tactics– Moral Trash
Tactics of making waste and trash out of the belongings and encampments of Occupiers did not stop at the material level. As many Occupiers know, the mainstream media, municipal governments and the police also used filth rhetorically to classify Occupy.
As the images above attest, slippage between moral and material filth is foundational to anti-Occupy rhetoric. Many of the images are drawings, cartoons, or illustrations rather than documentary photographs, which highlights the role of filth in the popular or opposition’s imagination.
The contest of filth and belonging is not new. The recorded history of those in power seeing threats to their social order as “filth” stretches as far back as medieval times. More recently, Ezra Pound’s Cantos regarded “the multitudes in the ooze,” citizens and their political leaders, as a flood of excreta, with democracy as a sea of swampy sewage. In contrast, Pound’s description of his desired enlightened dictator was neat and tidy, even shinning. In the last three centuries, the rhetoric of waste has usually been class-based, where the bourgeois “[condemns] the excremental working classes,” a pattern suited to a movement protesting the yawning gap between the rich and poor (Inglis 2010: 216). In every recorded case described by Inglis, filth and waste are used to describe the inferior, unregulated, disorderly and dangerous Other that pose some threat to the system of rule.
Within this understanding of the role of waste in protest, the seemingly contradictory acts of Bloomberg, the police, and other opponents to Occupy whereby they decry waste even as they create waste by turning entire encampments into trash make sense. They are methods to define and control what they see as dangerous disorder, specifically a danger to dominant social order. These are exercises in classing protesters as non-citizens. As Them. As Other. As Trash and Dirt.
Part 3: Occupy Tactics – Occupy’s Waste Infrastructure
One of the unique aspects of the Occupy movement compared to similar movements is the encampments. In these densely populated impromptu urban settlements, perfect strangers have to live together. In this context, ideals for how the world should work must be put into practice on the ground.
First and foremost, there must be toilets. There were hundreds, even thousands of people at Liberty Plaza on any given day before and after the eviction, and few accessible toilets in nearby businesses. Protesters had to figure out a way to rent, pay for, and site sani-potties. In New York, this meant an alliance with the United Federation of Teachers’ to place the sani-potties in the union’s loading dock. The UFT’s president said, “we are happy to help Occupy Wall Street to continue to be a good neighbor.” There was also a laundry service at Liberty, recycling stations, and, of course, the Sanitation Working Group, a facet of every Occupy encampment around the world.
Various infrastructures for sanitation were, and continue to be, part of a system of citizenship within the Occupy movement. Signs in Zucotti Park announced: “We are all part of the sanitation effort,” “We at Sanitation uphold the Good Neighbor Policy, which is a great guideline of our values and respect for each other in this community,” and “Thank your sanitation workers! It starts from the ground floor.” These services and signs were part of the rules and values of citizenship in the Zucotti encampment, all of which mirrored what Occupiers expect and demand from the 1%. According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, “dirt” is all about maintaining good citizenship, where beliefs and practices about filth and contagion uphold social values and what counts as acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The way Occupiers treat dirt and trash is symbolically similar to the City’s efforts to alienate them: in both situations, dirt is about maintaining a set of ordered relations, and rejecting inappropriate elements. For Occupiers, these ordered relations involved respect, sobriety, and cooperation. One of the three community rules at Liberty Plaza, drafted through a consensus process, was “Keep it clean. This plaza and these flowers are important to the community. Our ability to uphold the beauty of this park well represents our commitment to a better world.”
Very often, the cleanliness of the park was articulated as a direct testament to protester’s desires for just, “clean” politics. Signs declared, “Today we clean up our community, tomorrow we clean up Wall Street,” and admonished, “If you can’t clean up after yourself, you can’t clean up this corrupt world.” This sentiment is so strong that one protester self-identified as a cleaner: “We [Occupiers] clean. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.”
Not only was basic maintenance part of the citizenship-building process of the Zucotti encampment, dirt, trash and discards were also used as the raw material to imagine a better world. At the height of the encampment, Zucotti boasted a grey water system as part of the People’s Kitchen, a bike-powered composter whose compost was cycled to several nearby community gardens, a recycling depot, and a reuse station to fuel the movement’s cardboard aesthetic. These environmental amenities, constructed from scratch for public use, were a concrete manifestation of the better world Occupiers seek. In this better world, waste and trash were a thing of the past, as citizens’ duties included using resources as fully as possible. In many conversations, prolific waste was seen as a necessary product of exploitative capitalist production.
Together, the rhetorics and actions of cleaning up and building a wasteless future come to bear directly on Occupy’s message for just citizenship from 100% of society. Not only is littering and leaving messes for others to clean a breach of citizenship in the park, it is also an ethical breach in politics and finance. Not only is wasting, trashing, and discarding an undesirable act in the park, it is also undesirable and intolerable from institutions outside of the park. Wall Street is a notoriously bad housekeeper. It is worth noting that after the eviction of Zucotti, the “ethics of doing your chores” continued as the Sanitation Working Group cleaned foreclosed houses for reoccupation, and cleanliness continues to be a goal in meetings and other shared spaces within Occupy, though in different forms.
A second way that trash, dirt and waste plays into the tactics of Occupy is the argument that things that ought not be discarded have been wasted and trashed by the wealthiest 1% of society, banks, governments, and corporations. Many Occupiers involved in the eviction of Zucotti whose belongings were “stored” in dump trucks carry their crushed laptops to public gatherings as artifacts of injustice. The People’s Library called a press conference after the eviction and piled hundreds of trashed books in front of reporters to demonstrate the intolerable politics of trash practiced by Bloomberg and the police.
The same tactics are also used in a more symbolic sense. Members of Occupy Student Debt donned graduation caps and gowns made of garbage bags to symbolize how their degrees and earning power after graduation were worthless under the weight of their debt. Occupy Museums built a miniature model of a house in Harlem threatened with foreclosure out of discards and presented it to the Museum of American Finance, asking that the depreciated status of the property be ensconced in an elite cultural institution as part of the master narrative of how American Finance affects everyday people. Various testimonials on the “I am the 99%” tumblr site make reference to how their lives, futures, or degrees are “going to waste” or “being wasted” because of the corruption and inadequacies of institutions meant to support them. In each case, the rhetoric of waste, trash, filth and discards are used to critique the disproportionate power of a minority to discard the rights and livelihoods of the 99%. There is an implicit argument here that a citizen or resident of the United States should not be treated like trash by definition of what it means to be an enfranchised person.
Like their opposition, Occupiers also use the rhetoric of dirt, filth, waste and uncleanliness to characterize corrupt governments, the financialization of governance, and the corporate priority of profit over good citizenship. The London encampment sported a much-photographed sign reading “Compost Capitalism.” A direct action from OWS involved scrubbing Wall Street with brooms to “clean up” Wall Street. Protesters threw garbage at the Barcelona Stock Exchange.
In conclusion, to focus on the physical and material aspects of dirt and trash within Occupy or to keep a tally chart of when and where trash appears and whether or not it actually carried dangers of tuberculosis as some media claimed is to miss the point of the roles of waste, discard, dirt and filth within the movement. Instead, we must focus on the different logics of transgression attendant to waste and dirt. We can see that ideas about filth, waste, and transgressions make up an ongoing political debate about the ideal society by both Occupiers and its opposition. While many new tactics that use trash and filth to argue for or against certain types of order have been innovated on both sides of the Occupy movement, these are the terms over which contests about what counts as tolerable and intolerable conditions, right and wrong, citizenship and the Other, acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what constitutes “out of placeness” have been waged for centuries, and will continue to be waged.
Douglas, M. (1984). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, Ark Paperbacks.
Inglis, D. (2011). “Dirt and denigration: The faecal imagery and rhetrocs of abuse.” Postcolonial Studies 16(39): 207-221.
This article was written by Max Liboiron, New York University, and edited by three members of Occupy Wall Street who wish to remain anonymous.