“For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.”
– “Bread and Roses”
Someday my daughter will ask me how I met her father, and I will tell her about when we occupied the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz.
At the end of the summer of 2009, a group of college students, graduate students, and staff set about planning a campus building occupation. News of the next school year’s drastic budget cuts had come to the surface, leaving many of us out of jobs and in debt. On top of that, entire departments were being defunded, while class sizes, tuition, and administrator salaries were being increased. The word “crisis” started to echo among us.
Within weeks, a new milieu arose, centered on the idea of an occupation. It brought together former strangers, each of whom offered something different. Due to the practical concerns of constructing bike lock barricades, bringing in supplies, and organizing jail support, the group was unlike one of those bearded Marxist echo chambers that so often develop out of moments of crisis in a university. Everyone’s skill sets proved instrumental, and the notion of a “leader” could only be a fantasy of a few peripheral competitions. An unfamiliar, utopian feeling surrounded everyone involved. Part of it, for me, was falling in love with Kyle.
At the time, Kyle and I were both in our second year of graduate school, and coming to terms with our absent futures. Kyle was about to complete his MFA in Digital Art and New Media, only to be launched into a rather hopeless job market in which he somehow expected himself to begin paying off his student loans. In my case, the job market seemed too distant a prospect – I was more fixated on finding work as a teaching assistant, waged labor for the university, so that I could finish my PhD in Literature. We had been brought to the verge of extinct opportunities, and yet the lies that had brought us there remained invisible. Stuck in such a predicament, Kyle and I found ourselves suddenly exhilarated by the notion of “occupy everything,” as an opening to possibilities rather than yet another experience of foreclosure.
On September 24, 2009, the Graduate Student Commons became “the commons.” Primarily, it was a space of intellectual exchange, which generated teach-ins, discussions, reading groups, communiqués, and speeches. From the outside, I’m sure it was unclear what was actually going on – and the protest’s insistent demandlessness only added to that lack of clarity. Years later, however, it is at least apparent to a core group of us that what came out of this event was a new set of potentialities. We were tired of hearing about the golden age of Sixties protests on our campuses. Occupations, as we said then, are back on the table.
Two years later, Kyle and I became parents, while “occupy everything” proliferated as part of the global lexicon. Our daughter was born on the tenth day of Occupy Wall Street, and she quickly acquired the nickname “occu-baby” – a term of ironic endearment, you might say. Occupy Santa Cruz started a few days after we returned from the hospital, and it was the destination of our first family outing. Our family had developed out of this movement, and we were excited to continue our lives with “occupation” as the basis of our everyday politics. Now, that politics is about parenting a child in the midst of a crisis.
There are other things I expect my daughter to ask me about – and perhaps she will ask with the same heart-thumping curiosity that I felt when I was a child, and I asked my father about the Sixties. Except my daughter, I hope, will feel a part of these stories. I hope that “Occupy” will not feel closed, ended, periodized.
Unfortunately, in our community’s collective memory, the Santa Cruz occupation most prominently marks the inception of “electro-communism,” a term which catapulted the movement from tragedy to farce. In its defense, “electro-communism” can be understood through the tactic of the dance party barricade, which kept a crowd around the occupation during the dark and cold hours of night, when riot cops were most likely to swarm the building. And yet, the practicality of this tactic is often overlooked. Instead, “electro-communism” opened up the occupation to easily caricatured crowds of drunken party-hopping college bros, lured to the scene by French electro-pop, who took off their shirts, spun them over their heads, and chanted “occupy everything.”
Among our “electro-communist” comrades, Kyle and I are now somewhat anomalous as parents. There was no pre-established community of radical parenting for us, so it was an incredible feeling to have my daughter strapped to my chest in a front-pack as we joined old friends at a rally in Oakland, following the police raid of the Oakland Commune on October 25. The decision to attend this rally was rather impulsive: our daughter was a couple days shy of a month old, she had been in the car only a few times, and Oakland is about an hour and a half away from home. Occupy Oakland seemed like a dream to us, and it was already over – we thought. We took our chances. We wanted our family to be a part of a potentially revolutionary moment. But we never anticipated our experience that afternoon.
The protest began at the public library, where a few hundred people gathered in the late afternoon. Though there were certainly a lot of other children in the crowd, our daughter was perhaps the only newborn baby. When the rally at the library became a march to reclaim the park, we followed our plan to move at the periphery of the crowd, making eye contact with the police who had lined up along the sidewalks. We thought that the police should be made aware that there were children among us, so they would act with appropriate precaution.
Since that afternoon, I have realized this was a foolish assumption. About half an hour into this march, the police first tear-gassed the crowd. I know that nearly each and every one of those police officers saw children as they began their attack, which continued with the use of concussion grenades and batons. Terrified, I pushed my daughter’s head under my shirt, holding her close to my chest, as we quickly turned the corner, only about a hundred feet away. I had that bizarre feeling of being on a movie set: these were the sights and sounds of war, and I was there, without defenses, clutching my one-month old baby.
The movement began spinning itself as a narrative of sensationalized police brutality, especially after that day in Oakland – and, of course, the preceding story may provide yet another episode to this narrative. By the next morning, the large crowd with children that had been tear-gassed was eclipsed by the story of veteran Scott Olsen, who briefly captured the limited imaginations of those who need a hero in the movement. And now, especially since the pastiche phenomenon of UC Davis police officer Pike, the police have become villains, whose inhumanity glorifies a new set of heroes with every single hyper-mediated arrest action. Of course, it was with this attack on privileged, white college students that mainstream outrage could be generated by the movement’s obsessive self-documentation. From afar, this documentation frames its scenes with a keen sense of danger – which is perhaps why I am so often subject to criticism, as the mother of the “occu-baby.”
With my participation in the occupation movement somewhat transparent on Facebook, I have received numerous messages from people who claim that I have been subjecting my daughter to “violent riots.” One such message came to me in early December, after I shared a photo of an occupation in Santa Cruz, which took over an abandoned bank at 75 River Street. The message, which poorly represents the writing skills of a fellow graduate student, reads:
I have no sympathy with women who had the ludicrous idea of bringing children to protests. Especially within a crowded and occupied building. Where power was cut and adequate sanitation was unavailable. DURING THE FRIGGING FLUE SEASON WHEN THOSE CHILDREN SHOULD HAVE BEEN WITH RELATIVES OR BABY-SITTERS!!! What the bloody hell were those idiots thinking? That the protests were more important than the health of their children???
In addition to this kind of harassment, I was taunted by the public threats of Deputy Chief Steve Clark, who told an interviewer of his plans for certain protesters in this occupation: “Mothers are going to jail. Babies are going to Child Protective Services.”
I never brought my daughter into the 75 River Street occupation. By now, I go to protests certain that, at a critical juncture, the police will begin to brutalize the crowd. I have had to learn to prepare for this certainty as a mother, which means that I make decisions about how to participate according to a different sense of “safety” than any of my comrades, with whom I used to offer myself as a body that could be beaten, gassed, shoved to the ground, arrested, and detained by the police. Instead, I now go to protests knowing that the police are dangerous to my daughter, and I protect her from their reach.
We stood outside of that occupation, and through the glass windows, we could see our comrades moving about, discovering the new space and imagining all its possibilities. We stood just at the edge of what I felt was safe for us, because we wanted that line to be visible – so that more parents and more children can recognize that so much of this is already within our conditions of possibility.
For the three and a half days that the abandoned bank was occupied, the occupiers discussed plans for the building to become a community center in which children could someday have access to daycare, medical attention, food, and books. The space would have become an amazing resource for my daughter. And there were many who would have made that happen, if the group was not under constant threat of a police attack.
Today, a few months into the global phenomenon of park encampments, the “occupy everything” movement needs to uproot itself and seek out indoor spaces like one of the many empty or foreclosed buildings in downtown Santa Cruz, along with those in every other town or city in the United States. Winter is upon us, and it is time to recognize that many people “occupy everything” not because they read Marx in college, and have a lot of free time to attend general assemblies due to the flexible hours of a part-time job, but because they have nowhere else to go. When I think of some of the women who bring their children to many of these occupations, I feel fortunate that I am able to access student loans – adding to the more than one trillion dollars of national student debt – so that I can somehow rent out a roof over my daughter’s head.
And yet, these women and children are marginalized by the dominant concept of “occupy everything.” They are pushed to the margins by the sensationalized narrative of police brutality that now utterly dominates the movement’s self-conception. Since the threat of police attacks has increased – and a coordinated war planned by mayors across the country has been brought down upon civilians – the culture of these protests has been altered by a sort of adventurist machismo. To participate, one must be arrestable, and arrests must be affordable: one must have the funds, the spare time, the freedom from responsibilities. Ultimately, the arrestable are those who represent the movement. They speak of the movement as what “we are doing,” as if to address a you who is not doing.
Meanwhile, parents who bring their children to protests are called idiots, selfish people who use their babies as “human shields.” I’m fine with being called an idiot by people who I think are idiots, but I’m extremely offended by the notion of using my daughter as a shield from the police. And moreover, it’s clear by now that such a shield wouldn’t work anyway: the police will tear gas my baby, they will take her as collateral damage, and then I will be blamed for their inhumanity.
What’s unfortunate for every child in the United States is that once they are no longer being fetishized as a fetus, they are born into a world that only knows how to exploit them. Children are always exploited as means of preventing the agency of their mothers – and consequently, mothers are shamed for whatever choices they make, beginning with conception. This is what happened to Jennifer Fox, the pregnant woman who said she suffered a miscarriage after the Seattle police assaulted her with batons and pepper spray on November 15. Ever since the story broke, Fox has been called a liar, and there are still blog discussions dedicated to piecing together the woman’s testimonies. However ambiguous the facts, it is clear that this woman is being tried for murder on the Occupy blogosphere, in full accordance with the logics of patriarchy and state repression. By now, stories like this represent an epidemic within the occupation movement which, as far as I can tell, has been steadily ignored.
While I was thrilled to support the occupation of 75 River Street – the abandoned bank that is only a few blocks away from my home – my role outside the building left me feeling isolated, without a community during this new adventure of having a family. I found myself feeling more intensely afraid of the police, and worried about the safety of my daughter, even as an outside observer.
A week later, Occupy Santa Cruz requested that people gather at San Lorenzo park, where the encampment was being evicted. Most of the people who were living in the encampment were homeless, and spent the afternoon saving their belongings from being taken by police, thrown into dumpsters, and crushed. Our family walked to the park at an already cold hour. I wrapped my daughter in my coat and sat down next to a friend, who has been especially thoughtful in updating me on the details of general assemblies and more discreet meetings that I haven’t been able to attend.
A few minutes later, I noticed that a woman sitting near us was crying, and staring at my daughter.
“How old’s your baby?” she asked me.
“Two months old,” I told her.
Just then, an acquaintance of mine – one of these adventurist sorts, who I might now say is a friend from a previous life – came to whisper something in my friend’s ear. Something about meeting in one of the remaining tents to plan for an arrest action. My friend encouraged me to join him, but I told him just to count on me as his contact for jail support.
When he left, the crying woman came closer. She was silent, with tears flowing from her eyes, which were locked on the face of my sleeping baby. An older man walked by us, strumming his guitar and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and I put my hand on the woman’s shoulder. Her crying turned to sobbing, when finally she explained, “I lost my newborn last year, on December 12.” I held her more firmly, and, nearly dumbstruck, could only think to repeat to her, “it’s okay, it’s okay.” A few minutes later, the woman gathered her things and headed into the dark, leaving behind a home that could only be temporary.
That night, as Kyle and my daughter slept beside me in our bed, I lay awake thinking about the life of that woman, alone in the world that killed her baby. In the Occupy movement, these invisible people are everywhere. People who cannot feel safe in the front lines, who are not the privileged college students being pepper-sprayed, or the heroized arrestees who are bailed out hours later.
Having a child excluded me from the adventurist lifestyle I had two years ago. And yet, in becoming a parent, and in being excluded from some of my previous privileges, I’ve been given access to a form of solidarity that I never had before, with those whose precarity has been rendered unsensational by the obsession to theorize and demonstrate for them, rather than with them. For mothers with children, and so many others on the margins, the Occupy movement has provided everyone who participates an opportunity to generate and materialize solidarity with those who must live in the shadow of the movement.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. She has contributed to the University of Chicago Media Theory Glossary, and is preparing a series of essays on globalization and utopia for publication.