Riots and Occupations: The Fall of the US and the Rise of The Politics of Refusal

19 Oct


If there was an Arab Spring, it has been followed by a US Fall, not simply an autumn of increased political protest and widespread dissatisfactions but also literally, the fall of the US. When some demonstrators decided to sit down on Sept. 17 in Zucotti Park to protest corporate greed and the continued looting of US working people by investors and bankers, a certain North American propensity for indifference, ignorance, obedience was punctuated at last by a multi-racial alliance against a ruling class that sometime around the mid-90’s began its latest assault on global peace and domestic shared prosperity. In this spliced parallel conversation, Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam exchange ideas about the London Riots, Occupy Wall Street/Occupy LA, Anarchy, uprisings, looting and the folly of Zizek.


August of this year there were a few days of looting, burning and general chaos in London. These events, as with previous upheavals, were called ‘riots’ in Britain, but here in the US,  Left wing commentators  tried to use other terms like rebellion or insurrection. But thinking about these riots, Brixton and Handsworth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the banlieus of France in 2005, I’ve taken to actually preferring the term “riot” after all. It is bleak, it understands what it means to live in conditions of permanent and violent oppression. After all, ask any black person, “No Future” was not a sentiment first articulated by Sid Vicious!

(Handsworth Songs, part 1):

The term ‘riot’ provokes something different than the more euphemistic and hopeful ‘uprising’ or ‘insurrection’, both of which capture the spirit of irrepressible resistance, but seem to me infer the eventual need for centralized political and tactical organization and carry with them a nascent militarism. What I embrace about the term riot in our current moment is that it points away from a politics of resistance to a politics of refusal. The boys in the streets refused to behave, or even to complain properly. They were not demanding the state fulfill its promises or mend its ways, for riots are not about state recognition or redress, in fact they refuse a dialogue of any kind with authority.

The boys (and girls?) also refused to shop properly, gleefully looting everything from H&M to consumer electronics stores, sorting out goods in the back gardens of neighboring houses. And, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed following the Watts Riots in 1965, “Looting is a natural response to an unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It…exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed

These were not, as Zygmunt Bauman described them, “defective and disqualified consumers,” gratifying a “longing” to be part of the system, but snatchers, defying the terms of appropriate accumulation. (Zygmunt Bauman, On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost)


New theorizations of political protest emerged after the riots in the French banlieu in 2005, and took the form of a pamphlet called The Coming Insurrection authored by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee. In The Coming Insurrection, the group dissected the revolts that had just happened and mused about revolts still to come. They blamed the collapse of the global economy for the revolts and suggested that “the economy is not the CAUSE of the crisis, it IS the crisis.” They critiqued conventional forms of political protest and called for wide recognition that everything must change – that everything has changed and that work, social life, the economy, aspiration, hopes, dreams, melancholia are all ready to be reinvented through new relations between people and between people and institutions. They also named political domination as less a logic or a set of actions and as more of a “rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing reality.” To offset the rhythm of domination then we need, they said, an insurrection that gathers form after it flares up and resonates: “it takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations…”

It is this model of political (in)action that manifests in the riots of London and the occupations in US cities – a set of vibrations rumble through urban zones and gathering force they emerge in a blast of sound.

The exhaustion of conventional forms of protest has left people with a few different options out of which to craft a viable, dynamic and show-stopping movement: people can riot and literally block up the city; and, they can loot in the aftermath of the riot as a way of taking back the wealth that has been stolen from them; people can exchange information on facebook, twitter and other social networking sites and find new ways of flooding the media with our discontent; finally, people can simply “be there,” show up, show off, refuse to leave.

And while commentators like Slavoj Zizek in his piece titled – “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – — have criticized the London riots and the looting that followed for “expressing Zero-degree protest,” it is more likely that the message is clear and loud, but Zizek, saddled as he is with his nostalgia for a more binary mode of leftist politics, cannot hear it.  “The UK rioters had no message to deliver” he said. And it is true, the rioters, like the OWS movements around the country, have no succinct and unitary message to deliver: instead they speak in a babble of voices all rising in volume and intensity to say “no.”


The riots in London have been referred to repeatedly as “pure anarchy” in the conservative British press (Michael Nakan). Anarchy is a perfect term in fact because itis always in process: anarchy depends on improvisation, and creates fluid decentralized forms of organization. It is against not just economic exploitation, as with Marxism, but of all forms of domination. “Anarchy is not society without rules — it’s society without rulers,” writes Thomas L. Knapp at the Center for a Stateless Society, “If true anarchy is present in the riots, and I believe it is, it’s to be found in ad hoc mutual aid societies springing up in affected neighborhoods.”  This is an exciting idea, as it gestures to the ways disenfranchised communities, especially black people, already live in alternative relationship to the state, embrace anti-state practices, and engage in creative forms of cooperation.

JH: Are the Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Los Angeles movements participating in a new mode of political protest, one more closely aligned to anarchism than to conventional leftist protest politics? Are they truly multi-racial or do we find a split between racialized rioters in London and Paris and white protestersin the US? Can we find new forms of revolt registering in the lack of a list of demands, the mode of occupation and the preference for general assemblies and no leaders? Is the “human microphone” technique of amplification a brilliant metaphor for the multitude or a sign of the propensity for consensus politics to weed out eccentricities while centering pragmatic and “reasonable” statements? The markers of this new form of politics are the lack of a clear agenda or list of demands and the strong presence of a clear belief in the rightness of the cause. In other words, the occupation groups do not need an agenda, their pain and their presence isthe agenda. They do not want to present a manifesto, they actually are themselves the manifestation of discontent. The 99%’ers simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness. This is a form of political response that does not announce itself as politics, instead it enters quietly into the public sphere, sits down and refuses to leave.
JB:  On October 17, we celebrated one month of the Wall Street occupation. Like the riots, its decentralized organization, its refusal of spokespeople or leaders, suggest a movement that is as Jack says, “more closely aligned to anarchism” than any traditional Leftist models. But this is about as far away on the ground as you can get from a riot. Visiting the LA branch of the occupation, I was struck by how calm and orderly everything was. People were lounging around, reading, silk screening t-shirts. There are sign-up boards for volunteers, even a library. I was fine until the band started up with warmed over Woody Guthrie songs, and the Oathkeepers tried to hand me a leaflet.Despite the few brown and black faces amongst the crowd, there is a divide, most of those disproportionately affected by the vagaries of global capital are not here. And btw, who is this poster meant to speak to, exactly?

A frail, pale ballerina, en pointe atop a raging bull, my god, Adbusters, you couldn’t get much whiter).

Apart from Cornel West’s performance, perhaps we should remember that there is a lot more at stake for black people in getting surveilled and/or arrested, considering the history of blood and terror that has accompanied black protest. Julianne Malvaux says that black people are generally more concerned with concrete causes, such as the execution of Troy Davis and other cases of police brutality than an abstract, general protest of the financial system. But this sounds condescending to me. No doubt black people are more than aware of the larger picture, yet not that interested in joining in the somewhat smug, and grubby, Woodstock of it all.

Perhaps the disproportionate absence of people of color also speaks to their very different relationship to money and the financial system, one that is much less intimate, less expectant and less entitled than most white people’s. For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.

JH: While pundits and mainstream media puzzle over the Occupy Wall Street/LA movements and wonder about what they want and about whether the whole thing is just a side-show to some “real political movement” still to come, the occupiers, many of whom are now without occupations, are standing witness to the crime of the millennium: while we were all sleeping in homes we could not afford, the investors and brokers were draining the bank accounts of the professional class and sending the service classes into ruin and onto the street; they then recruited the government to the role of lookout and getaway driver while the Goldman Sachs Harvard graduate coolly wandered through the digital vaults of the nation’s banks and investment firms, pocketing the cash as he goes and called his activity “work.” When poor people rob banks they get life imprisonment, when Harvard grads do it, they get bonuses.

There is no doubt that the riots in London and the new Occupation movements are filled with opportunists as well as sincere activists, drunks as well as revolutionaries, people who want new goods as well as people who want to break down the structures of capitalist greed. But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.


7 Responses to “Riots and Occupations: The Fall of the US and the Rise of The Politics of Refusal”

  1. DaphneC. October 19, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    My feelings on the human microphone, in response to Jack’s question, are that it not just auralizes the multitude, but makes listening, choice, and action the electricity for its amplification.

    Richard Kim’s Nation piece on the microphone was good—he gets to the frustrations of the thing as well. It’s slow, it doesn’t work for fine grained discussion. But the microphone is just one part of the many forms of communication going on in the park and so many forms of face to face and mediated conversation. For me this is the significance of the people who have chosen to stay there: their refusal to articulate ‘policy points’ and their slow consensus language allows OWS to become an open space. For speculation, criticism, discussion, imagination, fear. For me it is this chatter that matters, from Twitter to office banter to e-mails with family members to the snide dismissals of conservative politicians. We are talking about the world right now with each other. Forcing conversations, as Jack said, about pain and suffering, privilege and justice, and mostly, about power.

    For most of us Bully Blogger readers this kind of talk is nothing new, but for many, raising these kinds of questions wasn’t usual, publicly stating anger wasn’t usual, people listening and empathizing wasn’t usual. It’s a classic protest strategy to have testimonials, but check out the for a very modern version of the technique. Here are a number of people presenting themselves both as individuals and as ‘just another.’ They are not human microphones, they are just humans, in their most private spaces and most private failures, now public in a photo of a handwritten sign, with half their face, some details of a room. What do these stories tell us about OWS? About what protest is now? About the relationship between individual stories and group decisions?

  2. Laura Murphy October 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    It’s great to receive your point of view. I sincerely hope that this movement will become more clear with its intentions, will open up to a larger variety of cultures by being more mindful about the messages it puts out, and expands in solidarity. There are great opportunities for radical transformation. Our country and the world needs this change desperately. The truth is that individual folks have to to face the discomforts of self sacrifice by weening ourselves from our addictions to things and to conveniences we’re all accustomed to, of living less comfortably, at least as we adjust to a more simple way of living, with less of the the latest fashions and fancies, of taking public transportation, of taking real action for environmental preservation, of reaching out and actively participating in their communities rather than isolating at home or in their own agendas, of coming up with projects that empower and shift power and abundance back to independent businesses, of being mindful of where their dollars go being of top importance because that’s how we show our support to the corporate world. I’m reading works written by Gandhi and his ideas around civil disobedience and noncooperation are brilliant, nonviolent and loving to all involved, and they actually worked. What he mentions over and over is the willingness for self sacrifice with a joyful heart. I understand that this is lofty goal and there are few mahatmas out there but I believe it is a worthy direction to turn our hearts and minds towards as well as taking real action in our own lives which will in turn affect others. We have to, “be the change we want to see in the world”.

  3. Cheryl October 19, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    As a black woman who is nearing forty, a PhD, a college educator, and a woman born and bred to struggle up and out of a dire socio-economic situation, everyday I face the reality of more than a decade of student loan debt, more than a decade of living through my twenties as a lost soul among the well heeled; and therefore as a somewhat careless and immoderate consumer. I hear the roar of the OWS folks, but I am a pragmatist. I recognize that if I am put in the clink (as my very funny cousin would say), there is no one able, however willing, to bail me out. I think black folks and in particular black folks who have achieved some measure of professional (not economic) success, are gun shy when it comes to putting ourselves and our livelihoods on the line. One of my students, a white male, said to me the other day: “I bet if you were in New York you’d be at the front of the protest line.” I responded, “No, I would be watching from the coffee shop as my friends–i.e. white friends–marched, and then as they were gathered up by the cops I would be at the station putting down whatever cash I had to bail them out.” I did not tell him that I have very little faith in the U.S. Justice System or my awareness that I have had my fill of black martyrdom. There are many things I love about this collaborative post: 1) When Jack writes: ” In other words, the occupation groups do not need an agenda, their pain and their presence is the agenda.” Yes, love it. Palpable. And then again when he writes: “But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.” I hope this is the case. 2) I love when Jayna writes: “For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.” Absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly. As Alice Walker told us years ago, “Not everyone progresses.” And not everyone is interested in “progress”–the status quo pacifies so many. Much appreciation and much respect to the two of you!

  4. Laura Murphy October 24, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    I completely understand when I hear the concerns coming from African American and even Latin American communities regarding why protesting is more dangerous for people of color than it is for white people…it’s true, history proves this. Not only do darker skinned people get beaten, harassed, jailed, and persecuted more than light skinned folks but they have also suffered tremendously in creating successful positions in the world which can come through receiving quality education, obtaining leadership roles in government and society, obtaining cultural respect and recognition of values, achieving substantial monetary wealth which comes through equal career opportunities and fair access to higher paid jobs, and so many other positions that have been exclusively held or given to predominately privileged white people. I recognize this and I want you to know that I have spent a great deal of time at Occupy LA and growing numbers of African and Latin American folks as well as other minorities are organizing, occupying City Hall day in and day out, teaching classes and giving presentations, speaking in front of hundreds of people, leading committees and more!!! This movement is very colorful and diverse in fact!!! I am so very grateful to the people who continue to peacefully protest, especially those who have been forwarding various causes demanding radical changes in this country and the world for decades and even hundreds of years as far as African Americans are concerned, who are at higher risk of danger yet still do not hesitate to sacrifice so much of their own personal securities and comforts in order to take society forward into a better future for all!!! Thank you for your bravery, patriotism and for setting the example of how a free, nonviolent, democratic system based on mutual respect and self sacrifice functions and thrives!!! Thank you to those who have stood for freedom, have laid your lives on the line and died for justice and equality when you and your lineages have already suffered and fought for generations upon generations!!! Without your strength, courage, and experience in organizing, and success in obtaining civil liberties and more social equality, while there is more that has to happen, this new movement would be completely lost.

  5. Cheryl November 20, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Forget what I wrote earlier, I am in. Wholeheartedly.


  1. Solidarity, self, occupy, democracy: More readings « Flat 7 - October 23, 2011

    […] Riots and occupations: The fall of the US and the rise of the politics of refusal – Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam […]

  2. Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education - October 25, 2011

    […] Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam on “the US fall.” […]

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