Art, Protest, Riot

If we could break America’s spellbound gaze on the presidential election, the pressing question of national politics would be this: will the recent fires ignited by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives ...

If we could break America’s spellbound gaze on the presidential election, the pressing question of national politics would be this: will the recent fires ignited by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the 2015 Baltimore protests smolder long enough to better society, or will they burn out? As we gear up for the final month of electoral horse race and chicanery, while passing the five-year anniversary of the Zuccotti Park encampment, three recent books shed light on this very question. Together they offer a hopeful yet honest look at art, protest, and riots in America today.

The infusion of radical politics into art in America is not new, yet such an infusion over the last five years has created a new era of art as revolt. This, at least, is the argument of Yates McKee—a PhD candidate in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center and coeditor of the delightful Occupy-inspired Tidal magazine—in his instructive if sometimes arcane Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition. This new era of “strike art,” or art as a means to political ends, began in the heady September 2011 days in the tent-and-cardboard-littered encampment. It continued in various offshoots: May Day general strikes, Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, Flood Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. McKee’s book sometimes falls into typical academic habits, making belabored references to European theorists or using inflated language (e.g., “psychogeographical dramaturgy” instead of “theater”). But it offers a personalized, unique look into the world of New York City–centric art and activism as a basis for a broader criticism of today’s political moment.

Strike Art’s most insightful chapters revise the history of Occupy Wall Street, by portraying it as largely initiated and organized by artists, particularly the 16 Beaver collective art space. That lower-Manhattan “dingy light-industrial building” is where politically engaged artists hosted both live streams from activists in Tahrir Square and Madrid throughout summer 2011 and seminars led by the anthropologist (and putative coiner of the slogan “We are the 99 percent”) David Graeber. Sitting cross-legged on the pavement less than a stone’s throw from the iconic Charging Bull sculpture in Bowling Green Park, that September the collective planned the initial encampment in Zuccotti Park. By the following month, Zuccotti would blossom into a global movement inspiring 900 similar protests.1

<i>Fist pump at Occupy Wall Street</i>. Photograph by Timothy Krause / Flickr

Fist pump at Occupy Wall Street. Photograph by Timothy Krause / Flickr

The Zuccotti Park occupation model was more than a public demonstration against injustice, writes McKee. It was also an attempt to “reterritorialize,” or to create a “communal life-support zone resistant to both the market and state-sanctioned versions of public assembly.” The Occupy spaces helped imagine a politics of an alternative social order that could one day scale up. Like the high-powered “99 percent” “bat signal” the guerrilla art group Illuminator cast on the Verizon building in Manhattan in November 2011, the political tactic that McKee calls “strike art” does not immediately change society. Rather, it plants the seeds of the better society in our collective psyche.

Five years later, Occupy has bled into climate justice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. “It has been within the adjacent spaces of Black Lives Matter and climate justice,” McKee writes, “that some of the most dynamic articulations of art and direct action have occurred in the past few years.” He notes that these movements overlap with “the political spaces, tactical repertoires, and social networks surviving from Occupy.” He offers up intriguing examples of these articulations—the Black Lives Matter die-in at Grand Central station, the throwing of red paint at NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton during a Times Square anti-police-brutality protest, the anti-imperialist “BlackOut Tour” of the National History Museum, and the Flood Wall Street climate protest direct action on Wall Street.

That nearly all these interventions took place in or around New York City, however, leaves open the question of how far the “post-Occupy condition” will travel outside the island of Manhattan. McKee also fails to clearly distinguish between previous art-historical eras and the “post-Occupy condition” that, he claims, Occupy brought about by late 2011. Looking at New York City through the lens of art journals since the 1980s, McKee sees contemporary art heading in a “strike art” direction. But he is wont to jump capriciously from one historical or cultural reference to the next, breezing through complex movements like Dadaism, the Situationist International, 1980s AIDS activist die-ins, and “alterglobalization” collectives.

Another recent book supplements McKee’s largely middle-class and NYC-centric account of protest art. In his phenomenal Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era Of Uprisings, Joshua Clover lays bare an amoral history and theory about the reemergence of riots in the Western world. Clover, an English professor whom McKee calls an “insurrectionist poet,” readily injects Marxist theory into his pop culture references. (Three years ago, in the Nation, he described Taylor Swift’s meteoric album sales as an allegory for Chinese economic expansion in late capitalism.2) But the materialist theory he lays out in Riot. Strike. Riot is anything but flippant.

The strike, Clover theorizes, is politically obsolete. Since the 1960s, the deindustrialization of First World economies has rendered an increasing number of people surplus to the economy and without an income in societies that depend upon their citizens spending money and circulating goods. These populations cannot confront the problem of their livelihood in the realm of formal wage struggle, i.e., thorough a strike, due to the cumulative effects of globalization and political mobilization against collective labor power the last several decades. They resort, therefore, to the riot, in an attempt to set a price in the marketplace. Think of Ferguson, MO, residents setting the price of a bag of Doritos as $0.00 instead of $0.99 after they smashed the local QuikTrip storefront window. In place of the strike, Clover writes, for the dispossessed trying to remake society, the riot has emerged as “the form of collective action through which struggle must pass.”

The genius of Riot. Strike. Riot lies in its concise and historically confident analysis of riots. Rejecting the “hard shoals of vulgar economism and the whirlpool of political abstraction,” Clover looks back to the “golden age of riot” that began at Bristol and King’s Lynn, England, in 1347, when a crowd seized grain from a port and put the food up for sale against the owners’ wishes. From the 14th to the 17th century, riots were the primary way for starved populations to collectively redistribute wealth on their own terms. But with the expansion of the work force in the industrial era, when individuals began selling their labor to live, the strike became the primary means for the poor to collectively redistribute wealth.

The golden age of strike, as Clover tells it, lasted from the 19th century into the 1970s. Now, as the number of people in Western cities who are cut off from productive labor or government income has dramatically increased, the riot has reemerged. Only this time, in the “riot prime” era, riots are driven by racial as well as class disenfranchisement. Riots are a form of “black life in its exclusions … cordoned into the noisy sphere of circulation, forced there to defend itself against social and bodily death.” Though Clover makes clear that “blackness” is not the cause of rioting today, “riot prime in the United States is a new phase of racialized struggle.” It emerged in the aftermath of the more reform-oriented civil rights movement, whose goals remain incomplete.3

But, we likely find ourselves asking, can impetuous Ferguson- or Baltimore-like riots, whether or not suppressed by our excessively militarized police, really lead to a better society? Clover refuses to map out such a vision. Like many good Marxists, he embarks on the solid ground of materialism only to lead his reader into head-in-the-clouds mysticism. His preferred social organization is a “commune,” or the “production and consumption of needs … and of pleasures! … beyond the measures of capital.” The riot is the seed of the commune, Clover theorizes, because the dispossessed participants of riots today are already outside the system of production: they live with the assumption that wage setting will have no bearing on their security. “The coming communes are likely to emerge first not in walled cities or in communities of retreat, but in open cities where those excluded from the formal economy and left adrift in circulation now stand watch over the failure of the market to provide their needs.” Drawing on French philosopher Georges Sorel’s notion that a spontaneous general strike is the only real means of revolutionizing society, Clover sketches an opaque vision of the road to the commune sparked by spontaneous general riot.

Clover’s belief in the power of the riot feels like a stretch considering the scale of the global economy today. Even if tens of thousands break convenience store windows and bang up some cop cars, such a temporary disruption in circulation could only affect a miniscule amount of goods, therefore not significantly affecting market prices—or at least not enough for anyone to confidently say the rioters were “setting the price” of goods. And yet, given that the share of US prime-age males (25 to 54 years old) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s,4 Clover’s prediction that riots will be the route by “which struggle must pass” may become more and more relevant.

Riot. Strike. Riot parallels Strike Art in that both make the case for tactics that build a communal space outside of capital and state power, in the hopes of planting the seeds for a new society. Both books, however, sidestep an immediate concern: the physical reality of police response. The easiest rebuttal of such political projects is that no matter how much artists or rioters seek to “reterritorialize” or “communize” public space in the imagination, the cops will ultimately have their way. But such a skirting of the real in order to free our political imaginations is exactly the type of thinking often needed for progress. Seen in this light, both books lend credence to Albert Camus’s sentiment, arguably out of fashion nowadays, that the rejection of the world as it exists, in tribute to a world that could exist, is revolt in its purest form.5

Even so, revolt in its purest form can be adulterated. Or at least this is a running theme in Sunil Yapa’s debut novel, Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, set in the Battle of Seattle in 1999. As a work of fiction, Yapa’s purpose is not to educate readers about political history so much as to explore what motivates certain types of individuals to engage in politics. The Sri Lankan American author’s characters—the civic-minded liberal, the dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, the guilt-ridden cop, the wheeling and dealing Third World delegates—converge on the protests and riots that block the World Trade Organization delegates from entering the Seattle summit. Yapa delivers this collage of humanity through Hemingway-esque understatements. “She went camping and torched a ski resort,” he writes of one character, a Mumia Abul Jamal–inspired revolutionary spirit.

The novel breaks down the pretensions of our political thoughts and actions by laying bare the doubt, selfishness, and confusion that plagues even the most politically committed among us. Yapa’s characters protest not because they know or even believe that civil disobedience will yield a better world. Politics satisfies their various ulterior desires: to care about others, to be a part of something larger than them, to sell weed to hippie burnouts, to repent for past sins, or to bully and gas others and get off scot-free.

<i>A protest sign at the Minneapolis City Hall, December 3, 2015</i>. Photograph by Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons

A protest sign at the Minneapolis City Hall, December 3, 2015. Photograph by Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons

Our political positions often have little to do with ideas or justice. A foray into politics can just as likely be spurred by an intense personal experience, a relationship, a sense of loneliness, a search for the divine, or a need for recognition, love, or pleasure. Yapa shows how these personal attachments—in addition to the standard divisions of wealth, power, and indifference—can get in the way of efforts to effect social change. The Seattle police chief Bishop warns his teenage son Victor that worldly idealism drove his mother to suicide. “This is what happens when you care too much,” Bishop tells Victor, after dragging his dead wife’s copies of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and bell hooks into the yard, dousing them with gasoline, and watching them burn. Yet for all this, the novel refuses to give into cynicism. Characters continue trying to do the right thing, even if they fall under a tear gas canister or police baton.

Like McKee and Clover, Yapa is not primarily concerned with the efficacy of protest. He’s concerned with the fact that those of us living at the pinnacle of global wealth and power are somehow incapable of creating a freer and more just society. “Strike art” might not have enough influence to lead us to such a world, and riots might not outlast the stamina of the greatest police and military state in history. But at a time when the con artists campaigning for the highest office in the land pretend to have answers for everything, the questions raised by writers like McKee, Clover, and Yapa feel more and more indispensible. icon

  1. Karla Adam, “Occupy Wall Street Protests Go Global,” Washington Post, October 15, 2011.
  2. Joshua Clover, “Red Country: On Taylor Swift,” The Nation, May 7, 2013.
  3. Of course, riots played an important role in the civil rights era as well. The riots in black neighborhoods during the Long Hot Summer of 1964 helped spur the Civil Rights Bill the same year, while the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. helped spur the Fair Housing Act four years later.
  4. Derek Thompson, “A World Without Work,” The Atlantic (July/August 2015).
  5. Albert Camus, “Art and Revolt,” Partisan Review, vol. 19, no. 3 (May/June 1952).
Featured image: A demonstrator raises his fist as police stand in formation in Baltimore, April 27, 2015. Photograph by policediver2 / Flickr