«Ocupar» de novo

    Após algum tempo, necessário para recuperar do choque das expulsões das praças públicas e da repressão, o movimento «Occupy» retoma a a iniciativa e volta a dar provas de imaginação criativa e mobilizadora. Em resposta à recente violência policial contra a ocupação de edifícios, em Oakland em particular (vídeos em http://www.tugaleaks.com/), o movimento apela a uma greve geral nos Estados Unidos para o dia 1 de Maio.
    Em Nova Iorque, continua a opor-se às expulsões de casas e uma das suas últimas iniciativas é a constituição de um Centro «Occupy Real Estate» [Ocupar Casas], uma espécie de «agência imobiliária» de lugares que podem ser ocupados na cidade...
    O texto aqui publicado (http://insurgentnotes.com/2012/01/letter-from-baltimore/) analisa o impacto do movimento numa das cidades mais deprimidas do Império, Baltimore. Cidade que foi um dos grandes portos da costa Leste dos Estados Unidos e um centro industrial importante. Ao descrever o estado de desestruturação e de atomização social, Curtis Price dá todo o relevo, por contraste, ao movimento «Occupy».
    Diz-me um amigo norte-americano, «Se se pode ser optimista em Baltimore, então há esperança para o futuro!»

Blue-light Baltimore

Anyone taking the south-bound night train into Baltimore   glimpses a
memorable vista as the train comes into the city, passing blocks of boarded
up row houses and desolate streets on the city’s working class east side.
Stretching across the horizon as far as the eye can see is an arc of
flashing blue lights, like those on a police car. The lights are portable
police cameras mounted on lamp posts throughout the inner city, designed to
dissuade drug dealing. But as everyone knows, in reality it’s just a
charade of cat-and –mouse, pushing the dealing a few blocks off before it
returns once the cameras shift again; a charade  that has gone on for years
now with no discernable effect . “Blue light Baltimore” is more than a
metaphor, however; it’s a lived reality for much of the city and a sign of
the depth of social crisis already embedded here before the collapse of the
2008 spun into recession without end.

Baltimore was one of the hardest hit cities in the early days of the
subprime mortgage crisis, a situation well captured in the documentary
“American Casino.”  Predatory lending by national banks like Wells Fargo
in neighborhoods such as Belair-Edison  and Sandtown  pushed up to one
third of housing in some stage of foreclosure, a situation that caused the
city in a failed attempt to sue Wells Fargo for intentionally targeting
minority neighborhoods. But except for a few abortive attempts in the early
stage of the housing market crisis by the now-defunct  ACORN (Associated
Communities Organized for Reform Now) to symbolically occupy houses, few
protested. Instead, people internalized foreclosure as  personal failure
and private shame.
I remember attending a conference a couple years ago put on by mainstream
community groups working on foreclosure issues.  Social workers and
organizers were puzzled why, despite  intense outreach efforts, no one was
coming in for help.  One organizer  spoke about foreclosure avoidance
services  at a local church and afterwards the minister came up and
whispered to her privately how his family was being foreclosed. But – and
this is key - he was too ashamed to mention it publicly in front of his
congregation.  As a result of this collective denial, people moved out at
night without saying anything to neighbors, thereby avoiding the
humiliation of public eviction when the Sheriff came.  In “American Casino”
few interviewed losing their home to foreclosure, even those who were most
conscious of how they were being screwed over by banks, saw their private
suffering as a collective problem open to collective action. While people
understood all too well the systemic roots and injustices behind their
personal tragedies, most  could in the end only envision personal solutions
as the way out.

Holding On and Making Do

Up until now, this resort to personal solutions has been the main response
to  the current crisis here. Many of the survival strategies pointed out in
the Insurgent Notes article by Henri Simon in issue # 1 are the new norm –
or extensions of  old survival techniques.  Others can be added, such as
income maximizing strategies  providing under the table services that
indirectly depend on tapping state funding,  such as setting up informal
day care centers and assisted living homes for welfare and Social Security
check recipients.  Skilled trade workers such as roofers, carpenters, and
electricians  secretly do side jobs at lower prices on company time using
company tools and equipment for inner-city working class households; a case
of workers not only recuperating their labor power but also a situation
where what on the surface looks likes individual survival also demonstrates
an underlying sense of collective solidarity with others. When I asked an
acquaintance, a  57 year old Black drywall worker who was forced to move
back to a trailer in rural Virginia, partly because of personal problems
and partly because of the collapse of the construction industry, how he
survived, he wrote back:

“Thank God, my home and acreage has been paid off for years so I only have
to pay personal property taxes. I did grow weed the first two years that I
was back home but I broke the addiction to dealing because of fear of being
detected by the younger violent dealers and rip off boys. People who knew
me in my younger years started becomlng suspicious of me doing something
since there was no construction going on. I live (very) simple because my
savings have dropped drastically. I sold my Home Depot, Diebold, AFLAC and
Exxon stock in that order. I mistakenly thought that I was going to get
some drywall contracts somewhere with the many contacts that I have in
different states. I did not think that it was going to get this bad. I hide
funds so that I can qualify for food stamps and fuel assistance. I have had
some drywall work since I have been home and I used to return to the D.C.
area often to do work for clients that have known me for years. “

In a city like Baltimore where the drug trade is a major employer of last
resort, it’s impossible to accurately  gauge  what role this sector plays
in providing or supplementing income for many people unable to get jobs or
earn adequate income in the formal economy.  The visible drug markets on
the corners, the targets of the “blue lights”, are just the tip of a larger
iceberg that extends underneath, influencing and conditioning (mostly
negatively) facets of  social life,  everyday  interactions and extension
of trust. Besides the direct distributing and street corner drug sales, the
drug economy generates secondary and tertiary  ripple effects on the local
economy and individual income strategies too.  A woman I used to give rides
to after school, a former heroin addict, cut off social services but still
getting Medicaid, used legally obtained Oxycontin to barter child care
services from neighbors and friends.  Another woman I used to work with set
up a hair salon on weekends in her basement to cut drug dealers hair,
saying she made more money in a few hours than she did all week working.

This reliance on various individual survival strategies,  shifting between
legal or “illegal” depending on circumstances, is not an example of “false
consciousness” or backwardness but has to be placed in context, namely the
fragmentation and isolation stemming from the last several decades of
declining sociality, itself a result of shifting changes in the economy,
with the resulting effects on personal life and patterns of consumption.

The Decline of the Social

Traditional collective institutions in Baltimore, from unions to community
organizations, have faded over the past several  decades.  A  poignant
example of this decline can be seen in the practice of  local unions in
Baltimore area construction now being forced to hire paid picketers to
staff picket lines, so incapable are these organizations of generating any
genuine interest or participation from their own members. The sit-down
corner bar, once a  mainstay of working class neighborhoods,  gets
converted into the plexiglass-protected carry-out, where what little
interaction goes on now takes place behind shielded glass and iron grates.
Entertainment is brought into the home through cable television with its
hundreds of channels and not something you go out to socialize with others
for. The need to work multiple jobs drastically cuts down on free time. The
result of these and many other trends is an individuation and atomization
in working class Baltimore that has largely eroded and undercut a sense of
larger collective identity and participation.

But if in a very primitive sense the aforementioned individual survival
strategies carried out in such conditions show some germ for a larger
potential collective response, holding out distant hopes for a better
future, the depth and  speed of the current crisis is pushing more people
into crisis themselves. Survival strategies meant as temporary stop-gaps
until an economic rebound will be tested and eventually exhausted as the
economic crisis not only continues, but  deteriorates with no foreseeable
end  - except for  repeated demands for austerity and  declines in living
standards. Unless, of course, there is a qualitative and quantitative
change in resistance.

Another real possibility, not necessarily contradicting the first, is the
further entrenchment of drug distribution networks in the inner city as the
fiscal crisis of the local state forces cutbacks in public services and the
state presence shrinks except for its police presence. As an example of
what  such a future may bring, in a case reminiscent  of Naples or Ciudad
Juarez, last year Baltimore authorities busted one such network, the
well-organized Black Guerilla Family, that had managed to infiltrate
street-level anti-gang and violence mediation programs and through a front
group even produced a pamphlet written by its leader calling for
entrepreneurism and community “self-help” which was endorsed, to their
later embarrassment, by several local politicians.
Thus coming to grips with the impact of Occupy Baltimore means not just
evaluating what the movement has been able to do or not do on its own terms
but rooting its experiences  in this larger picture of class decomposition
and recomposition that in Baltimore followed in the wake of the same
patterns of deindustrialization, suburban flight and  disinvestment gutting
other former manufacturing cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland.

Occupy Baltimore’s Impact

I can’t speak about the internal workings of Occupy Baltimore because I
didn’t get down to the site to form my own impressions before it was
peacefully shut down by the city in mid-December. Instead I will discuss
what I think has been Occupy’s larger effect on the city, with its
strengths and weaknesses

From the beginning, Occupy here was able to draw on existing activist
networks around the Red Emma’s bookstore and café. This meant from the
start that Occupy benefited from previous networking and informal
organization and didn’t have to constitute them from scratch, as was the
case in other cities. Occupy Baltimore also profited from a hands-off
strategy by the police and city administration, which when combined with
the tactical savvy of local organizers, meant that Occupy successfully
avoided the confrontations like those playing out in Oakland, Denver and

Occupy Baltimore also basked in mostly sympathetic media coverage.  True,
there were a few negative stories, mainly relating to alleged crimes
committed by some of the fringe elements who gravitated to the camp during
its high point. And predictably, the local Fox affiliate tried to set up an
expose discovering drug paraphernalia in tents. But these were exceptions
to the rule. Surprisingly, the local daily, The SUN, printed an Occupy
Baltimore guest op-ed, a consideration this paper rarely extends to any
remotely point of view. To a large extent, this sympathy came because
Occupy Baltimore like elsewhere drew  disproportionate support  from under-
and unemployed young members of the local  ‘Creative Class”: art students,
web programmers, media workers, musicians, downtown hipster marginals and
bohemians,  etc., white, well-educated and articulate.

At the same time, Occupy Baltimore managed to  get significant mainstream
union endorsements and support. Unions  such as  SEIU suddenly adapted the
Occupy slogan in leaflets. On October 26th, heads of 13 city union locals,
including the Fraternal Order of Police, sent an open letter to Baltimore
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake calling for the Mayor to “stand down” and
not remove but continue to dialogue with protesters (1). The Maryland/DC
AFL-CIO followed up in late November with a support Occupy resolution
calling for the Mayors of both cities not to evict Occupy camps (2).  While
undoubtedly much of this support came from a calculated desire not to be
caught off-guard and left behind by a movement that threatened to turn into
a mass outpouring of anger against the banks and income inequality and
escape control by traditional organizations such as the unions and
Democratic Party, in the context of the sclerotic and ossified standards of
local labor union practices, these were significant steps, even though the
resolutions had no teeth in them and thus were for all practical purposes,
posturing and positioning.
Another tangible victory for Occupy Baltimore came with the open meeting of
an alternative economic development committee involving Occupy with the
Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) (3). The BDC is a shadowy
public-private business partnership funded in part with public funds from
local taxes that is exempt from sunshine laws requiring open meetings; the
BDC has always resisted outside scrutiny. The fact that the head of the BDC
felt compelled to meet with the Another Baltimore Development Committee is
Possible and Occupy in a highly orchestrated meeting on the steps of the
BDC offices to open “dialogue” demonstrates once again on one hand the fear
that the Occupy movement would overstep the usual channels of containment
and on the other hand the desire for the local city administration and
other similar players to ‘ride the tiger,’ i.e. continue  symbolic ritual
‘dialogue’ until the movement winds down and is no longer considered a

But more important than how the union leadership responded is the effect
Occupy has had on ordinary union members and other workers. For example, at
a two month Occupy Baltimore evaluation meeting I attended in mid-December,
which attracted close to 200 people, mostly new to politics, a UNITE
organizer speaking from the floor said how “energized” union members became
whenever they visited the Occupy camp. It’s impossible to know how much of
this cross pollination has taken place. Although affecting relatively few
people, this new permeability between the previously separated , countering
fragmentation and sharing experiences and dialogue despite all of Occupy’s
significant limitations, still has opened up possibilities not seen here
for many years. A process that has probably been repeated to one extent or
another in the hundreds of Occupy sites around the country. It won’t be
enough in itself to shake off the decades long narrative of defeat but it’s
a promising start.


1) Statement in full at:
2) Statement up at http://occupybmore.org/comment/229
3) See the Another BDC is Possible website at:

0 comentários: